Two Things Watching The Oscars Taught Me About Ethics and Compliance

Patricia Arquette, accepting the 2015 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Patricia Arquette, accepting the 2015 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

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).

Recycle! (Sustainability).

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.)

On the Eve of 9-11

Every year, as we pass Labor Day and approach September 11th, I think of the not-so-modest proposal I offered a few years ago, for a new national way to think about those two American events. This year, the deliberately public, deliberately heinous beheadings of two journalists again bring my thoughts to “Freedom’s Labors.” Steven Sotloff and James Foley labored for freedom by plying their craft and trying to shine some light in a dark place. That form of routine heroism also deserves some explicit recognition.

So allow me to repeat this post from a few years back:

I’d like to make a proposal.

First, I propose that the Friday after Labor Day be designated a full federal postal and banking holiday, to be designated as Freedom Day.  I know that the idea for this kind of holiday, designed to commemorate the shock, losses, and resolve of 9/11, is not a new one — but I propose we take an additional step.

So I propose further that the week between Labor Day and Freedom Day receive a special designation.  I would call it “The Days of Freedom’s Labors.”  And it is that entire week that is the focus of my proposal.

The old saying goes, “a freedom isn’t free,” but after all, how much time do we spend talking about the price we pay for freedom?  So I view The Days of Freedom’s Labors as the time for a national consideration of the simple, individual work it requires to maintain a democratic society that operates under the rule of law.  That work begins with the kind of labor that Labor Day was established to commemorate in the first place: that people get up every day and go to work and keep our economy going.  But a week long consideration of freedom’s labors also provides time to reflect on the work of public servants, charities and faith-based organizations, simple basic acts of heroism, and yes, even of the work that lawyers (like me) do.  It also provides a time to celebrate how freedom arises from civil, respectful debate, and the work of an independent, active press.

But restoring meaning to Labor Day is only one of the many benefits of a week long commemoration of freedom’s labors.

The holidays would give provide a way to mark the 9/11 attacks that is meaningful, affirming and forward-looking… a way that moves away from the maudlin or from bringing too much attention to the attackers (which is all they wanted). This is also the season to mark the national tragedy that was Hurricane Katrina. Both events provide many examples of the value of individual civility, and the cost of its absence.

For companies, the national discussion centering on The Days of Freedom’s Labors could also be a touchstone for compliance efforts, perhaps providing a handy kick-off to a fall push to meet compliance targets by year’s end. And again, the touchstones of civility, mutual respect, and yes, the Golden and Silver Rules, are a natural tie-in to the best reasons for compliance.

The Days of Freedom’s Labors would also provide a useful, immediate focus for curricula at the beginning of the school year.  Rather than the usual drift through a slow ramp up of studies, celebrating The Days of Freedom’s Labors at the beginning of the academic calendar would give teachers an immediate focus to explore topics from civics and government, to ethics and diversity, to history and biography, to the rule of law.

Speaking of the beginning of the school year, few parents would not welcome another three day weekend to buy things like that exact form of binder that most pleases Johnny’s new teacher (a requirement that, in my district anyway, you never seem to hear about until after Labor Day).

Indeed, for retailers and tourist destinations alike, an extended end-of-summer holiday could even reap economic rewards.  For businesses looking for non-monetary forms of reward for their work forces, the close combination of the Labor Day and Freedom day weekends might provide some appealing opportunities.  And would it be all that bad if the weeklong commemoration of The Days of Freedom’s Labors brought our overworked country a step closer to that glorious continental institution they call vacance – the company-wide vacation.

But let me not get too far down the road of pleasing vacations and crowded stores. The point is, a week-long celebration of freedom’s labors fits our times and fits our unique national identity.  It is distinctly non-partisan. By its nature, it is an appropriate time for dissent as well as assent.  And that may be the greatest value of the Days of Freedom’s Labors: reminding all Americans that our progressive, prosperous society – where everyone gets a chance, and every vote counts – is built or abandoned in proportion not to how much we rigidly agree – but by how hard, how honestly, and how respectfully we labor for the rule of law, and institutions and businesses governed by the Golden and Silver rules.

Happy Freedom Day.

The Days of Freedom’s Labors

As we approach early September, I’d like to make a proposal.

First, I propose that the Friday after Labor Day be designated a full federal postal and banking holiday, to be designated as Freedom Day.  I know that the idea for this kind of holiday, designed to commemorate the shock, losses, and resolve of 9/11, is not a new one — but I propose we take an additional step.

So I propose further that the week between Labor Day and Freedom Day receive a special designation.  I would call it “The Days of Freedom’s Labors.”  And it is that entire week that is the focus of my proposal.

The old saying goes, “a freedom isn’t free,” but after all, how much time do we spend talking about the price we pay for freedom?  So I view The Days of Freedom’s Labors as the time for a national consideration of the simple, individual work it requires to maintain a democratic society that operates under the rule of law.  That work begins with the kind of labor that Labor Day was established to commemorate in the first place: that people get up every day and go to work and keep our economy going.  But a week long consideration of freedom’s labors also provides time to reflect on the work of public servants, charities and faith-based organizations, simple basic acts of heroism, and yes, even of the work that lawyers (like me) do.  It also provides a time to celebrate how freedom arises from civil, respectful debate, and the work of an independent, active press.

But restoring meaning to Labor Day is only one of the many benefits of a week long commemoration of freedom’s labors.

The holidays would give provide a way to mark the 9/11 attacks that is meaningful, affirming and forward-looking… a way that moves away from the maudlin or from bringing too much attention to the attackers (which is all they wanted). This is also the season to mark the national tragedy that was Hurricane Katrina. Both events provide many examples of the value of individual civility, and the cost of its absence.

For companies, the national discussion centering on The Days of Freedom’s Labors could also be a touchstone for compliance efforts, perhaps providing a handy kick-off to a fall push to meet compliance targets by year’s end. And again, the touchstones of civility, mutual respect, and yes, the Golden and Silver Rules, are a natural tie-in to the best reasons for compliance.

The Days of Freedom’s Labors would also provide a useful, immediate focus for curricula at the beginning of the school year.  Rather than the usual drift through a slow ramp up of studies, celebrating The Days of Freedom’s Labors at the beginning of the academic calendar would give teachers an immediate focus to explore topics from civics and government, to ethics and diversity, to history and biography, to the rule of law.

Speaking of the beginning of the school year, few parents would not welcome another three day weekend to buy things like that exact form of binder that most pleases Johnny’s new teacher (a requirement that, in my district anyway, you never seem to hear about until after Labor Day).

Indeed, for retailers and tourist destinations alike, an extended end-of-summer holiday could even reap economic rewards.  For businesses looking for non-monetary forms of reward for their work forces, the close combination of the Labor Day and Freedom day weekends might provide some appealing opportunities.  And would it be all that bad if the weeklong commemoration of The Days of Freedom’s Labors brought our overworked country a step closer to that glorious continental institution they call vacance – the company-wide vacation.

But let me not get too far down the road of pleasing vacations and crowded stores. The point is, a week-long celebration of freedom’s labors fits our times and fits our unique national identity.  It is distinctly non-partisan. By its nature, it is an appropriate time for dissent as well as assent.  And that may be the greatest value of the Days of Freedom’s Labors: reminding all Americans that our progressive, prosperous society – where everyone gets a chance, and every vote counts – is built or abandoned in proportion not to how much we rigidly agree – but by how hard, how honestly, and how respectfully we labor for the rule of law, and institutions and businesses governed by the Golden and Silver rules.

Happy Freedom Day.