This weakness may reflect a view of ethics as intrinsically intangible or theoretical and therefore not susceptible of concrete outcomes. This tendency may also indicate that ethics expertise has not kept pace with the widely accepted organizational mantra that effective execution requires clarity of intended outcomes. (Similar risks arise when weak strategic planning processes assemble action-oriented to-do lists rather than plans delineating strategic outcomes. Similar risks also arise when governance becomes a static box-ticking exercise rather than a continuing oversight process.)
What are the relevant considerations?
- Ask the right question. Standard ethics actions regularly make headlines: codes of ethics, training programs, or ethics reports. These actions stop short of the critical question: what outcome are you trying to achieve with the ethics mechanism? Presumably the intention is not to have another code or policy but rather to eradicate discrimination or inappropriate fund-raising commissions. Excellence in ethics oversight requires organizations across all sectors, along with their leaders and other direct and indirect stakeholders, to integrate intended outcomes at every step from discussion of guiding principles through policy and practices, decision-making and evaluation.
- Ethics in a complex organizational reality. Determination of intended ethics outcomes must occur in parallel with clarification of other organizational outcomes. Ethics intentions are embedded in an organizational reality of multiple competing organizational and individual objectives, interests, and demands on resources. Few if any ethical intentions should stand alone. All organizational objectives should link to clearly articulated ethics results. For example, a decision to adopt a zero tolerance policy with regard to sexual harassment may mean firing the highest income generating partner in a law firm. This outcome differs considerably from a warning system in sexual harassment matters that accommodates revenue, loyalty to leaders, or even a view that “second chances” are acceptable ethically. A decision not to do business in a country with a culture of rampant unavoidable corruption affects varied engagements in that country: rejecting strategic acquisition opportunities; refusing donor funds even if the donor has no direct links to corruption; or a multi-lateral organization’s untangling of government-level corruption and famine.
- Clarification of multiple competing ethics matters. The exercise of defining the ethics intentions and outcomes often collects overlapping intentions. Examples of outcomes include: first in class legal compliance with regulation on ethics matters (e.g. the UK Anti-Bribery Act 2010) or proactive protection again lawsuits; protection of organizational reputation; implementation and communication of core values (e.g. treatment of employees or sustainability); financial objectives (e.g. attracting ethical investors, exceeding transparency requirements for donors, shareholders, or the public in an effort to attract funding); political objectives (e.g. winning an election or garnering support for a political act); attracting customers/students/donors/voters; or reinforcement of personal reputation (e.g. a CEO or CFO’s personal reputation or compensation scheme).
- Prioritization of ethics matters. The focus on intentions forces organizations to prioritize ethics within the complex reality and multiple simultaneous organizational objectives outlined above. Most often, actions do not require much investment. Implementing an e-mail reminder to employees about expense account ethics is not costly. However, outcomes trigger difficult choices. Dismissing an entire department of employees who violate the expense account policy may be quite costly.
- Enforcement. Clearly defined intended ethics outcomes also support enforcement of ethics policies in difficult situations (e.g. dismissing a highly respected bank Chairman for failure to address the unethical behavior of the CEO). Intentions facilitate sacrifices. It is much easier to enforce an ethics outcome of zero tolerance for factory safety violations than a vague “safety along with other considerations” approach that is usually the default position absent specific outcomes.
- On-going vigilance. Clearly defined ethics intentions facilitate adapting to internal or external changes or crises. A multi-lateral organization may shift governance pre-requisites for assistance in times of famine. A corporation may reconsider the ethics intentions behind a hiring or firing policy in times of economic stress. Leaders must keep an eye on the intended ethics outcomes in order to adapt flexibly the actions to achieve them in evolving circumstances.
- Leadership. Responsibility for broad organizational definition of ethics intentions, as well as clear communication throughout the organization and externally, falls squarely with the leaders at the top. Conversely, disciplined focus on ethics intentions improves leadership and sensitivity to ethics risk. This parallels leaders’ responsibility relating to strategy and governance.
- Evaluation and lessons. Clarity of intentions improves evaluation and the ability to extract lessons from how and why targeted ethics intentions are achieved or missed. This focus on intentions does not change the fact that ethics efforts do not guarantee outcomes. However, clearly defined intentions do vastly improve the decision-making process, the chances of achieving the outcome, and the quality of evaluation of both. It is difficult to demonstrate accountability without clarity of intentions as part of the review.
Finally, as always I view first in class ethics oversight as an opportunity. Clarification of the intended ethics outcomes not only improves the quality of ethics oversight, but also improves the other organizational metrics and organizational decision-making more broadly.
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