Monday, September 14, 5:00 PM CDT: “The Trouble with Moral Relativism” – I’ll be leading an advanced discussion group at the SCCE Institute about the attitudinal trends represented in increasingly popular thoughts like, “It’s all good,” or “Who can tell – they’re all lying.” We’ll talk about whether this growing normative agnosticism creates unstable ground beneath the foundation of corporate compliance programs and any attempt at ethical leadership.
Tuesday, September 15, 10:15 AM CDT: “Speak-Up Success: Training and Communications to Truly Encourage Reporting and Reduce Retaliation.”– I will lead this workshop at the Institute, along withAmy McDougal and OSI’sChris Cook about practical and effective ways to generate a Speak-up Culture.
And by the way: If my Compliance and Ethics Institute remarks sound interesting to you, then tune in to my next “Powering the Pandemic Pivot” webinar, Wednesday, September 24, 12:00 Noon ET,where I’ll try to share what I learn at this year’s Institute about fostering Company Culture.
It’s been 20 years since the Supreme Court rulings in Faragher and Ellerth made corporate anti-harassment efforts routine, yet there are more headlines than ever about blatant acts of harassment, especially among corporate and cultural leaders. Sharing research and our collective experience, this workshop will focus on training, policies and culture-building, to explore why we have failed in preventing harassment, where we have engaged, and how we can elevate behavior. One critical focus will be retaliation vs. a “speak-up” culture, including best practices for creating, maintaining, and getting management support for an Open Work Environment.
Then on Monday, October 21, Amy and I will return to present a discussion on “Counseling compliance in small to medium sized businesses.”
Businesses with under 100 employees make up 97% of US companies, and headlines show they are at least as prone to compliance-related failures as the Fortune 2000. But “SMBs” are unlikely to have a CCO or even GC. So the task of leading and counseling compliance falls to other professionals, including HR and outside counsel. In this panel, Amy and I will explore the unique challenges of compliance leadership in SMBs, where budgets may be limited, processes informal, and executive power dominant. We’ll share experiences, including ways to use regular operational processes as tools to promote compliance, and to use the strong culture in these companies to their ethical advantage.
The idea for this panel was inspired in part by the Charlie Rose episode, which even though it involves a major TV star, is really a failure of small business compliance. Rose’s production company had no HR department, only a executive producer who among other duties may have tended to enable rather than check her “CEOs” misconduct. Our hope is that this panel will be of particular appeals to HR professionals and the “compliance lawyer.”
I’m also very excited that I have been asked to moderate a panel at the upcoming UIDP26 Conference in San Jose, CA.UIDP is the University-Industry Demonstration Partnership, an organization that considers university-industry (U-I) relations and opportunities to develop new approaches to how academia and business can work together. The panel is entitled: “Ethics and Compliance 2018: a University-Industry Dialogue.“
From #MeToo to campus speech to AI to perceived conflicts of interest, concerns about ethics are now even more a part of daily life at companies, colleges and universities alike. For both sides, this concern is only more heightened when it comes to their partnerships with other institutions. (Who are your partners, and what do they appear to stand for?) In this panel, ethics and compliance professionals from academia and industry will share their respective points of view and current concerns. The goal will be for attendees to understand better not just what their partner needs their institution to do, but how it hopes they will do it.
If you are watching the “Big Game” Sunday Feb. 7 (or the “Big Pre-Game” or the “Big Post-Game”), and a pithy thought pops into your head about ethics, or compliance, or business leadership and culture, please join me in using the hashtag #SB50Ethics. And if you just want to see what E&C oriented folk are thinking, then follow #SB50Ethics.
No pressure. It’s not a live-blog, something happening every 30 seconds, must write thing. Just thought I’d suggest a single social media home for our collective musings, however casually they are offered.
Will we really be thinking about ethics between the wings, beer, and commercials, you ask? Oh, yeah.
An advance workshop on drafting and negotiating contracts with compliance provisions — this would take the next step from the compliance contract panels that Amy and I did at the CEI in 2014 and this year.
“The Good Reasons Why People Do the Wrong Things” — Exploring the frequent instances when people follow their own ethical code and choose to break rules. (Think about teachers or nurses following their deep ethic of care.) The lesson: it’s not just greed or “bad guys” that lead to misconduct.
“Fostering a Speak-Up Culture: What Really Works” — Now more than ever, it’s critical for compliance professionals and business leaders to focus on what, objectively, has worked best to foster and maintain a culture in which people report suspected wrongdoing freely, constructively, and internally. So how do you make that happen?
I wish they’d let us do all three of them! So tell me, what’s your favorite?
Last Sunday, three of us compliance lawyer types had ourselves a virtual Oscar Party.
We three – Amy Hutchens (CCEP), President of CLEAResources; Kirsten Hotchkiss, now an employment and employee relations counsel with American Express Global Business Travel, and I (President of LeadGood, and also CCEP)– conducted an experiment with the following hypothesis:
IF the leaders of an institution, through their every message and action, set a “tone from the top” that either fosters or undermines the ethical culture of that institution; and
IF the culture of our nation – an institution we all share — is in part determined in those rare events that a large proportion of the population share in-common;
THEN an ethical “tone at the top” will be set by the cultural stars and leaders who speak and act during the massively multi-person annual event that is the Academy Awards.
Amy, Kirsten and I made that hypothesis the topic of a “live-blog” that we conducted Oscar-night on my company’s website. We watched the Oscars along with everyone else, and reacted in real time to those things that compliance lawyer types notice. (You can still read our stream of observations and musings here.)
Our hunch going in was that we might hear a few moments of ethical leadership, and maybe a few ethical gaffes, among the presenters, red carpets types, and the commercials of the Oscar telecast. To our surprise, we (along with the rest of the billion-plus viewership) wound up hearing an almost continual series of stars speaking out forcefully and fervently for noble causes that should command our attention. Just in the acceptance speeches, we heard advocacy for:
Gender Equality (Best Supporting Actress)
A.L.S. (Best Actor)
Alzheimer’s (Best Actress)
Whistleblowers (Best Documentary Feature)
Teen Suicide Prevention (Best Adapted Screenplay)
Returning Veterans (Sound Editing)
Civil Rights (Best Song)
Immigrants’ Rights (Best Picture)
Calling Your Parents (Best Supporting Actor)
As the New York Times put it, “Oscar nights usually do have their share of political posturing, but this was a particularly passionate evening. “
But there was a tone from the top, and it was this: “Speak Out for your Beliefs! Take Action to Help Others!” It was Corporate Social Responsibility Night at the Movies. Hooray for Hollywood!
Seriously, Oscars 2015 was a big-time, highly public, star-studded endorsement of a speak-up culture. (Even the Lego Movie’s brainwash-the-citizenry song, “Everything is Awesome,” lost.)
But on reflection, I wonder if all those appeals blurred together, and if any of them still stand out in the memory of most viewers. It was almost as if the message was, “Everyone has their own cause – so any cause is right.” Having heard so many appeals for action, viewers may have felt ironically unmotivated to action.
So I ask: Was the experience of the Oscar viewer on Sunday that different than the experience of our employees, in this time of the multi-modal, socially savvy, short-message-oriented, compliance communications program? I happen to love the practice of delivering compliance information in shorter bursts at higher frequencies, of “social learning streams” and the like. If we’re not careful, though, does it sound like this?
Don’t discriminate! (HR).
Wear safety glasses! (EH&S).
No gratuities! (Commercial Compliance).
Donate! (United Way).
Protect our Trade Secrets! (General Counsel).
Protect our Company Data! (IT).
Follow our Code! (CCO).
If our quick compliance hits seem a blur, then the Oscars may have offered two lessons for our programs.
First, Focus. Too many emotional appeals may leave me numb. Too many instructions at once may strain my memory. If everything is important, nothing is important. (Maybe those programs that stress a theme-of-the-month have the right idea.)
Second: don’t just send a message; tell the story. “Still Alice” had a compelling message about Alzheimer’s, and “American Sniper” about veterans and war, because of the power of their storytelling. The movies had the time, and craft, and humanity to make a social issue real. By contrast, the short plugs in the acceptance speeches at the Oscars were only reminders: they returned an issue to the front of mind, and reminded us of something we care about. That is an excellent thing to do in the short nuggets we have added to our compliance messaging.
But the power behind those messages originates in good old-fashioned storytelling. And even in this social age, it is the story that provides the inspiration to act.
Hooray for Hollywood!
P.S. Since our little experiment worked, we’ve resolved to do our “Ethics and the Oscars” live blog again next year. Hope you can join us!
(Note: A version of this post also appears on LinkedIn.)
Will the billion-plus viewers of the Oscars this year hear messages that promote a culture of ethics, or erode it?
My compliance chum Amy Hutchens and I, and others we hope, are planning to have some fun with that question as we “Live Blog” during the Oscars telecast tomorrow (Sunday, February 22). You can follow along with our observations and musings, and chip in your own, on the “LeaveGood Live!” page of this website.
As compliance pros have observed as frequently as Liam Neeson makes his voice all gravely, an institution fosters (or wrecks) its ethical culture with every statement and communication that its leadership makes. I think of this as the Sting Rule of Ethical Leadership (Every Little Thing You Do Is Culture). So when it comes to one of the central events in the American culture — the Academy Awards — what are our cultural leaders saying about ethics? Rather than add to more learned commentary about the movies themselves, our main focus will be the speeches, the jokes, bits of the Twitterverse, the commentary and the commercials (second in mass cultural importance only to the ads during the Super Bowl).
What ethics messages or miscues will we hear this year? An actor’s appeal to a moral cause with all the wrong language? A major product ad that encourages you to lie to your boss? Or just conspicuous over-consumption?
In large part, Amy and I are just going to see what comes up, and wing it. Our hope is that we can all have a little professional fun — us, and you (dear reader), if you choose to add your comments along the way. We’re going to start up at 7 PM EST and plan to keep going until the thing is over.
If you are watching the big show, I hope that you’ll bring us up on your little screen.
Please join me in congratulating Donna, who is being most-deservedly honored “for her tireless dedication and unwavering support for the independence of the compliance and ethics profession.” If you follow Donna on Twitter (@DonnaCBoehme), you will see what I mean – and like me, you will get the value of her strong and experienced analysis.
Occasionally, company leaders just do the darndest things. Things like short-term decisions that wind up wrecking a company’s reputation long-term. Things that must make the company’s efforts to build a culture of ethics internally, just seem to its employees like so much window dressing. These bone-headed decisions set a “tone at the top” you don’t want. Call them cases of a “Bone At the Top.”
I came across two of them in the news this past week.
In the past you would take your empty tank and pay to exchange it for a full one. But starting last summer, two big propane tank exchange companies, Blue Rhino and Amerigas decided that instead of raising prices they would put less propane in the same-sized tank. “The fact of the matter, those tanks weren’t full, they were partially full,” says Attorney Eric Gibbs, adding, “so consumers didn’t realize that they were getting 15 pounds instead of 17 or 18 pounds.”
This is worse than shrinking a 50 cent candy bar — you can see that. Now, I checked today at my neighborhood Lowes, and there was a sticker on the cage of Blue Rhino tanks saying they contained 15 lbs. of propane — but for that message to hit home I would have to (1) go to the cage and look at it (when to do the exchange you instead just walk into the store), and (2) remember that when I last got a tank, months ago, it had 17 lbs in it. But I don’t do either of those things. I hand them my old, empty Blue Rhino gas tank and some money and they hand me a different tank that feels heavier. It’s supposed to be an exchange, not a down-grade.
So maybe next time I’ll take my Blue Rhino canister over to my local farm-goods store, where I keep the tank and I watch them pump it full of propane. I get what I bargained for, and Blue Rhino gets its recurring-revenue business model severed. Short-term win becomes long-term loss. This may be more evidence, as I have mused before, that short-term executive thinking is unethical. It is certainly evidence that sometimes, the most ethical and transparent thing to do is just raise your prices.
It’s also possible that, as my family’s official Griller of Meat, I take this BBQ Propane thing a little too personally.
The second case is even more of a head-shaker.
It’s now been revealed that the National Arbitration Forum (the NAF) — one of the largest alternative-dispute resolution forums — is owned in large part by an investment fund that also owns a massive nationwide debt collection agency. I’m guessing the fund leaders thought they were making a nice, pure vertical play into the consumer debt collection sector: the ability to profit by being both the “prosecutor” and the “judge.” Now NAF has been on the receiving end of some awful press (like this and this and this) and a lawsuit filed by the Minnesota Attorney General (the Journal has a link to the complaint). The AG alleges as follows:
The consumer also does not know—and the Forum hides from the public—that the Forum is financially affiliated with a New York hedge fund group that owns one of the country’s major debt collection enterprises. Beginning in 2006 and through 2007, Accretive, LLC (a family of New York hedge funds under the control of an investment manager named J. Michael Cline and his associates), engineered two transactions. In the first transaction, Accretive formed several private equity funds under the name “Agora” (meaning “Forum” in Greek), which in turn invested $42 million in the National Arbitration Forum and obtained governance rights in it. In the second transaction, three of the country’s largest debt collection law firms (Mann Bracken of Georgia, Wolpoff & Abramson of the District of Columbia, and Eskanos & Adler of California) merged into one large national law firm called Mann Bracken, LLP. Accretive then formed and funded (partly using federal money from the U.S. Small Business Administration) a debt collection agency called Axiant, LLC, which acquired the assets and collections operations of Mann Bracken.
Through these transactions, the Accretive hedge fund group simultaneously took control of one of the country’s largest debt collectors and became affiliated with the Forum, the country’s largest debt collection arbitration company. In 2006, the Forum processed 214,000 consumer debt collection arbitration claims, of which 125,000—or nearly 60 percent—were filed by the law firms listed above.
Catch that? The NAF bills itself as a neutral forum, but it allegedly got 60% of its consumer debt collection cases from its sister companies.
The Minnesota AG filed her suit on Tuesday, July 14. Less than a week later, on July 20, the NAF settled, and agreed that it would never, ever again handle a consumer arbitration. Said the AG, “The company will permanently stop administering arbitrations involving consumer debt, including credit cards, consumer loans, telecommunications, utilities, health care, and consumer leases.”
A broad, long term defeat, arising from what someone thought was a clever win. Ouch.
Want to know why the government is so hot right now on regs and statutes that impose mandatory disclosure or mandatory self-reporting of allegations? Consider this: at the heart of both of these instances of a “bone at the top” was the failure to fully publicize some key fact, to speak publicly about “the whole truth.”
But also consider the compliance teams at these companies, and their affiliates, who in the face of this news have to continue to tell their teams to reveal all possible conflicts of interest and play by all the rules. Problem: A Bone at the Top drowns out Tone at the Top every time.