Corporate ethicists: Their time has come

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Paul Jesep 016-ct-2014-10By Paul P. Jesep, JD, MPS, MA
From ethikos magazine

As important as ethics and compliance officers are in companies and many non-profits, it’s time to consider an expanded role. Empower them to provide a genuine organizational conscience and awareness beyond legalisms.

Consider a “corporate ethicist,” “business ethicist,” or “organizational ethicist” (collectively CEs) as part of your team. In general, this specific type of ethicist would come with a broad, philosophical outlook going beyond the formalities of policies, protocols, procedures, and regulations.

Up until now ethicists were common in the legal, religious, and medical fields. There have long been business or corporate ethicists, but few are integrated into organizations; most tend to consult or serve in an educational capacity at a college or university.

CEs can provide an ethical ether or moral oxygen permeating every aspect of the organization’s life. This is different from the standard role of an ethics and compliance officer which at times seems more functionary.

For example, CEs need to be involved in the planning stages when businesses develop new price points or marketing strategies. This is distinct and in addition to drafting, recommending, and implementing policies while enforcing existing ones. Ethics goes beyond the mechanics of compliance.

Other CE objectives, especially for businesses, could include:

  • Ensuring customers receive good value for a fair price;
  • Ensuring safety isn’t sacrificed for profit by ignoring design flaws, particularly those that statistically will not cause many injuries, but will harm none the less;
  • Ensuring products made overseas aren’t produced by abused or exploited labor despite verbal assurances by contracted manufacturers;
  • In larger organizations, asking the awkward question “why can’t low-skilled employees be paid more than a minimum wage or share in the company’s financial success with an end of the year bonus”;
  • Making sure company promotions and advertising are not deceptive, or targeting/manipulating children (Joe Camel), or omitting important product information; and
  • Overseeing the structuring of bonuses for selling services or products that do not permit mere lip service to an organization’s ethical standards or statement of values.

Recently, General Motors (GM) disclosed it knew of faulty ignitions in its vehicles many years ago leading to the inevitable, yet avoidable, deaths of drivers. However rationalized at the time and in the absence of individual accountability, someone in senior management made a business decision to do nothing.

Many other recent examples include practices by banks (especially in regards to mortgages) with a profound, negative impact on the lives of individuals and their families. The marketing and advertising of junk stocks and bonds also comes to mind to dupe investors looking for quality products.

What would a CE have done at the time a strategy was being developed? Hopefully, not look the other way, but prick the conscience of decision makers by asking, “What if it’s your spouse, parent or child who are the victims of a poorly engineered product or shoddy investment?”

The CE can be the needed voice of reason and fairness. This is an expanded focus for an ethics and compliance officer. Although there is a case to be made for separating ethics from compliance and making an organizational distinction between an ethicist and compliance officer, it’s a topic for a future column.

[bctt tweet=”@SCCE The CE can be the needed voice of reason and fairness. This is an expanded focus for an #ethics and #compliance officer. ” via=”no”]

CEs can be the breath of ethics, values and compliance in a way that shapes and directs the organization in much larger way, fueling its heart and soul. They aren’t just part of a team, a member of staff, but rather something more encompassing—the organization’s living, breathing conscience.

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