By Art Weiss
From Compliance & Ethics Professional, a publication for SCCE members.
I see that got your attention. I could have just as easily titled this column “Whose ethics are they anyway?” but you might not have stopped thumbing through the magazine long enough to read it. And before you write in, both spellings of the color are correct, but in the U.S. it’s usually spelled with an “a”.
At the recent SCCE Compliance and Ethics Institute, my idol and mentor Marjorie Doyle and I had the pleasure of conducting a pre-conference session entitled Practical Methods for Building an Ethical Culture. We had around 75-80 compliance professionals in the room for our discussion on ethics. It was a great exchange of ideas on this very important topic. During a break I had a discussion at one of the tables with a compliance professional who pointed out that ethics are different for different people. This side discussion was triggered by my statement during the session that a substantial portion of our moral values, which I hold to be a critical element of what we call ethics, are developed while we are young. We learn these values from our parents, teachers, clergy, big brother or sister, coach, commanding officer, etc. This is probably why our values are as diverse as we are. What I deem to be an offensive symbol or joke might seem totally appropriate to someone who was raised in a different part of the country with different ideas.
What I believe to be the right thing to do in a given situation may not be what the CEO, a sales manager, or a production line worker believe are the right thing to do. The U.S. Sentencing Commission wants us to foster an ethical culture, but whose ethics, whose culture? In many instances there is no bright line between what is right and what is not right to do; only many shades of gray. We all have somewhat different opinions of what is right. And opinions, by their nature, are personal to each of us as individuals.
[bctt tweet=”Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do, and what is right to do. @SCCE” via=”no”]
So whose ethics do we follow? In most instances, the ethical principles that make up an organization’s culture are set from the top. Prosecutors recognize this when they evaluate “the tone at the top” in deciding whether and how to prosecute alleged wrongdoing by organizations. To understand an organization’s culture, we must understand and consider what every individual member’s idea of what is the right thing to do is. This isn’t always easy. The late U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Potter Stewart, once said: “Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do, and what is right to do.” I, for one, would appreciate a little help understanding just what the right thing to do is in every situation. I fear that some choices might fall among those fifty shades of gray.
Why can’t someone just spell it out for us; kind of like the Federal Sentencing Guidelines do when they speak of an “effective compliance program”? Oh yeah, never mind, more gray.
Art Weiss (art_weiss @ tamko.com) is Chief Compliance and Ethics Officer at TAMKO Building Products in Joplin, MO.