- (a) They are rules against something morally wrong and/or
- (b) The overal negative consequences of the act are high.
Sent: 06-28-2010 11:41
Subject: Ethics Without Compliance
This message has been cross posted to the following eGroups: Ethics Forum and Chief Compliance Ethics Officer Network .
On Friday I saw some behavior that made me wonder if a faith in ethics is worth having, absent a strong compliance regime.
I was on a plane and, after the doors closed, the flight attendants made the usual announcement about turning off all electronic devices until ten minutes after take off. It’s a rule that is announced on every flight, but as every frequent flyer knows, it is poorly enforced. The flight attendants often don’t notice people breaking it, and many hide their use of the devices. Plus, some people honestly forget and leave their phones on the entire flight.
Such was the case on the flight I took on Friday. After the announcement was made many people pretended not to hear it and went on tapping away at keyboards. When the flight attendant spotted them and told them to turn their devices off immediately, some did, but my seatmate only pretended to. As we were taxiing out to the runway, I saw her checking Facebook statuses on her iPhone. All I could think was “I know your iPhone is highly unlikely to cause the plane to crash, but is it really worth taking a risk on the safety of a couple of hundred passengers just to read that Cindy is psyched for the weekend?”
Bottom line is, she didn’t believe in the rule, knew no one would be monitoring it effectively, and chucked any ethical considerations.
She wasn’t alone. Within seconds of the plane’s liftoff I was amazed at the number of iPads, iPods and other devices that were up and running. I seemed to be the only one waiting to hear the double chimes indicating it was now safe to use approved electronic devices.
Why did they do it? There was a rule that they didn’t believe was worth following, it got in the way of what they wanted to do, and there was no real effort at compliance. And what about the ethical considerations about potentially putting others at risk? They made a calculus and, not surprisingly, found in their own interest.
It’s no different, as I’ve written before, at the ten item or less line at the supermarket, another weak compliance environment. It’s exceedingly rare for a clerk to turn anyone away for having too many items. So, a significant percentage of the population will try and sneak in with as many items as they can.
All this makes me wonder: can we talk seriously about business ethics without their first being regular and strict compliance? To be fair, not everyone cheats on the 10 item or less line or turns on their phone when they shouldn’t, but the numbers are high enough to make me wonder about the potential mayhem it would create in a business setting.
Ethics is often discussed as being useful for navigating the gray areas, but that assumes someone is policing the line between black and white.
There are many who argue that we should put ethics first and compliance second. I’m starting to think it would be a disaster.
Am I onto something or should I stop flying so much?
I think of it like an x/y graph, with ethics on one axis and utility on the other. We judge each other, and ourselves, by the combination of these factors. If we think something (even if it is against certain rules or regulations) has no negative effect on anyone else and there is no moral prohibition against doing it, rules will not stop many people from doing it. Cell phone usage on the plane is the best example I can think of. No one believes that there is any chance that their 3G iPad is going to bring a plane down so, crew member instructions or not, people will do it if they can get away with it.