The Test of Time Part I: Proactive Ethics Oversight
I have been obsessed with time as an intellectual matter (Proust and Einstein…), a cultural matter (orchestra conductors, Big Ben, the Great Wall building process), an organizational matter (school bells, oven timers, day light savings time, airport schedule boards, time zones…), and a social matter (fashionably but annoyingly late). Time is perhaps the biggest challenge of ethics oversight for all organizations, whether for-profit, non-profit, academic, or governmental. The ethics of time is indeed intellectual, cultural, organizational, and societal for most organizations. Above all time also underlies the challenge of managing unpredictability that underlies all of my ethics work. The key is to use time proactively – that is, put time on your side.
- What is the right time frame for your ethics analysis? All at once. This question is the core of all ethics analysis. Organizational ethics oversight requires awareness of the past to resolve lingering issues; of the present to ensure real time diligence; and of the future for planning and prevention. It requires flexibly managing ethics in the short-, medium-, and long-term simultaneously – i.e., lasting but elastic. What are you doing to address past challenges? What are you doing to integrate ethics consistently into the day to day so that both ordinary course and unexpected ethics matters are addressed in real time? What are you doing preventively? How do your governance, strategy, policies, systems, training, and organizational culture link to this question of multiple simultaneous time frames? Failure to integrate ethics considerations into all time frames prepares a terrain for magnification and contagion of unethical behaviour rather than early detection and containment.
- Presents from the past. Past ethical errors often surface at a future time for a number of reasons – a law suit, a regulator’s sudden interest (Standard Chartered’s Iran fund issue), a hidden issue is deliberately or inadvertently exposed (borderline illegal sexual harassment conduct), or a small issue snowballs or spreads (one padded expense receipt…). Time magnifies the importance of the consequences of even the initially smallest ethical transgressions (or their consequences). Ethical errors have a tendency to repeat themselves (LIBOR calculation) or stack on layers (lying to federal officials post accusations of securities fraud) or spread (normalization of poor behaviour such as sharing data lists, accepting charitable gifts from questionable sources, or sports doping because “everybody does it”).
- Ever-present. Ethics affects the quality of all decision-making and risk management at all levels of an organization all the time. The safety hazard of the unrepaired stairs at the Eurostar Gare du Nord station in Paris, a maintenance staff member engaging in insider trading based on information left on a desk overnight, a rogue trader, grease payments to port officials to allow NGO equipment to pass through, or weak CEO oversight all reflect decisions and risk management (or lack thereof) that directly affect an organization’s success. There is no time off.
- Back to the Future. Are you adequately focused on 20/20 foresight? In my work I always ask what the decision or action will look like looking back from a future point – whether in an hour, a week, a year, or 10 years. Effective, future-oriented ethics oversight isn’t just looking at the future from today, but also attempting to look at today from the future…and the future from the future. One corollary: the catalytic implications of social media and technology more generally often expedite and magnify the consequences of unethical behaviour. The unethical future arrives more quickly now than ever before. In addition to the organizational and cultural issues mentioned above, are your organization’s societal endeavours – whether corporate social responsibility or delivery of humanitarian aid or university scholarships – also adequately forward looking? Do you ask the fundamental questions of impact, potential for doing unintended harm, and capacity to maintain programs once started? Finally, reputational, internal, and regulatory repair generally take much more time than the ethics decision or transgression. Prevention is easier. Proactively create your future.
- Risky times. Risk analysis and management should integrate both expected risks and the increasing risk of completely unexpected ethics challenges, again across all time frames, to ensure principles and systems for handling the unexpected as it happens. Time also changes the context in which ethics decisions were made. Solutions need to take into account both the situation at the time of the solution and the context of the time of the error in order to solve the cause and not just the symptom in a currently relevant manner.
- Time out. Ethics oversight shifts with organizational, societal, and regulatory contexts. Every so often, and preferably on a regular basis, a time out to re-assess is essential. This assessment should consider both internal matters and external regulatory, commercial, societal, and technological matters. It should also include reflection on how the leaders lead ethically.
As always, comments and questions are welcomed with gratitude. For a more psychology-based take on time, see renowned psychologist Dr. Phil Zimbardo’s new web site and book (see Recommendations) and my interview with him on this site (see Interviews).
© Copyright 2012 Susan Liautaud & Associates Limited. All rights reserved.
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