More Important Than Ever: Business Ethics and Compliance

Three years ago, shortly before the Trump inauguration, I wrote a brief piece about how an obvious grifter with no values beyond is own self-enrichment would have deleterious effects on business. While it hasn’t had precisely the effects I had imagined, in many ways the ethical situation in the Anglo-American business world is worse than it’s been since at least 1974.  Arguments could be made for setting that back another century, making the current administration tangentially responsible for some of the most hypocritical and horrifying actions of my lifetime.

When I decided I wanted to make a change from being a technology, strategy, and risk consultant to being an ethics and compliance professional, I imagined the job would entail more actual ethical decision making or at least framework-building. Unfortunately, that’s not been the case. Not once in the last decade, during the pursuit of both Master and PhD degrees in business ethics and working for a variety of firms both a consultant and in-house compliance officer, has anyone approached me and said “James, we have a problem. We have two courses of action and it’s not clear if either of them are ethical. Can you help?”  Not once.

The reconceptualization of compliance and ethics by OCEG (the Open Compliance and Ethics Group) as Governance, Risk, and Compliance, has helped by focusing on what businesses are really concerned with: not losing the company and not going to jail. (I’ve often said that the one true metric of a compliance officer is whether the CEO has had to do the “Perp Walk”). However, structural and systematic issues in business, politics, and our culture are militating against good ethical decision-making by everyone involved. So much of what we thought we once shared in common understanding seems to have been stripped by political, economic, cultural, and educational forces.  Ultimately, one must understand the problem to begin to fix it. The purpose of this blog is for me to try out some of my ideas and if I gather some readers and we can start some discussions, even better.

One warning: I’m not one of those assiduously non-political writers, lest I alienate someone who might want to engage my services. I assume, perhaps naively but certainly more generously than political neutrals, that people capable of following my arguments will also be able to separate the arguments from the arguer. Also, I think much of what has led us to the unfortunate position we’re in today has its genesis in politics, not ethics.

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