Ethics & Compliance Lessons in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story [SPOILERS]

By Fermeen Fazal

As Ethics and Compliance professionals, we try to teach our workforce how to make ethical choices.  We draft policies and procedures to assist them in knowing what the right thing to do is in any given situation, and when they face a decision that falls within the gray area of a policy, we teach them how to determine what the best choice would be.  There are many ways of teaching this decision-making process. Real life, relatable hypotheticals are helpful for employees to envision themselves in the scenario presented.

However, I have found that, even more than carefully crafted scenarios, using pop culture helps employees remember the message.  For instance, when I teach employees that it’s important to start by look at their own actions when they are asked to do the right thing, Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror encapsulates my message and offers an easy soundbite employees can take away with them.  When I explain that employees must be courageous enough to do the right thing even when it is hard, I share the difficult challenges Harry Potter faced to destroy Horcruxes in the J.K. Rowling series, explaining that courage means doing the right thing even when you are scared, simply because it’s the right thing to do.  Using pop culture helps drive the message home because the examples are familiar and can be easily explained.

I recently saw Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in the theater.  It is a perfect movie to use in teaching ethics and compliance lessons. (WARNING, the lessons below contain SPOILERS from the movie!).

Lesson One:  Speak Up when you make a mistake.  One of the themes in Rogue One concerns how an individual should handle a mistake.  Research scientist Galen Erso has decided he does not want to complete the design of the Death Star because he has concluded it was wrong to begin creating a weapon of mass destruction.  Companies should always encourage employees to speak up and come forward when they’ve made an error or see something wrong without fear of retaliation.  Galen Erso, while acting with integrity in refusing to complete the plans, does not have that luxury.  He is forced to live in isolation as a farmer to protect his family after he makes this choice.

Lesson Two:  Leadership should not pressure employees to act in an unethical manner.  Galen Erso cannot hide for long.  Imperial Director Orson Krennic forces Galen Erso to return to an Imperial base to complete the Death Star design.  The pressure is great, and when Galen Erso attempts to resist, Krennic shoots Galen Erso’s wife.  Placing pressure on an individual to take an unethical action is a classic example of how leadership can increase the risk of a compliance failure.  Leadership pressure is one element of the Fraud Triangle.  Director Krennic demolishes this leg of the Fraud Triangle and insists Galen Erso complete the Death Star design.

Lesson Three:  Consider the consequences of your actions before you act in order to make an ethical decision.  Fifteen years later, we learn that Galen Erso has still been trying to do the right thing.  He actually compromises the Death Star’s design by placing a vulnerability in its reactor that can be used to destroy it, and tells his daughter, via hologram, where the structural plans are stored.  If she can steal them, the Rebels can destroy the Death Star before it is used for destruction.  In contrast to all the good ethics Galen Erso demonstrates in considering the impact his actions will have on humanity, Imperial Governor Tarkin ignores the consequences of his actions.  When he is unsure of the quality of the Death Star’s construction management, he and Director Krennic use the weapon to destroy Jedha.  The two remain nonplussed about the killing of innocent people. Unlike Tarkin and Krennic, companies should always encourage employees to think about the impact their decisions will have.  Carefully weighing consequences before making a difficult choice is a prudent course of action.

Lesson Four:  Set up controls for employees to report violations and teach them how to do the right thing.  Galen Erso’s daughter, Jyn, tracks down her father, but he dies in her arms after a Rebel bombing raid.  In her grief, Jyn tells her friend Cassian that if he follows orders from the Rebel leadership when he knows they are wrong, he’s “just as bad as a Stormtrooper.”  This is the classic Nazi defense:  Hitler’s generals testified at the Nuremberg trials that they knew the actions they took were wrong, but they were following orders.  In a corporation, Ethics and Compliance professionals should set up controls so this kind of pressure does not exist.  There should always be a way for employees to report problems via a hotline or through an ethics officer if the employee does not feel comfortable going straight to the leadership.  And, if those two stopgaps fail, the role of an Ethics and Compliance professional is to teach employees how to do the right thing.

Lesson Five:  Once issues have been raised, take decisive action.  Jyn proposes a plan to steal the Death Star schematics, but the Rebel leadership cannot agree on a course of action, given the risks involved.  In a desperate move to convince them to act, Jyn tells the Rebels they shouldn’t worry about what chance they have of stealing the plans, and instead they should focus on the fact that it’s the only choice that they can make to save humanity. It’s a brilliant way to drive home the point that once issues have been raised, management stagnation can lead to compliance failures.

Lesson Six:  Conducting a risk analysis is important to decision-making, especially if the conclusion is to accept collateral damage in order to achieve a larger goal.  Frustrated at the Rebel leadership’s inaction, Jyn, Cassian, and a number of Rebels take a ship to search the Imperial data bank for the plans themselves.  The group is ultimately successful, and Jyn is able to transmit the Death Star plans to the Rebels.  However, once Governor Tarkin realizes the data bank has been compromised, he uses the Death Star to annihilate the base. Jyn and her friends all die.  This risk had been weighed as Jyn and her friends took on the mission of finding the plans, and the group was willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good of the Rebellion.  John Stuart Mill’s famous essay on Utilitarianism argues that if the end justifies the means, the choice can still be a moral one.  The idea that collateral damage is acceptable to achieve a bigger goal is one that military leadership planning war strategy face with frequency, but companies face it as well.  When the economy is tough, and a company must have a reduction in force to continue operations, the leadership is sacrificing some workers so the doors can remain open.  As tough business decisions are made, ethics and compliance professionals should guide the leadership to proceed after a risk analysis, and remind the decision-makers to act with fairness as they keep their end goal in mind.  A reduction in force goes over much better if employees feel that management made the cuts with an eye towards a justice.

Lesson Seven:  Show employees that above all else, acting with integrity is key.  The movie ends as the plans that Jyn transmitted to the Rebels are handed to Princess Leia, who acknowledges that the plans will provide the Rebellion hope for its future.  If there can be a happy ending when all the main characters of a movie die, it was that the Rebel sacrifice was not made in vain, as the Death Star goes on to be destroyed in the next movie.  Similarly, as long as employees understand they are working for something that is bigger than themselves, they will be loyal and steadfast in the commitment to acting with integrity.

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  1. Very entertaining, even for those unfamiliar with the characters and story. Lots of action and new heroes. As a long-time fan, I initially thought there were errors, but now that I know this is supposed to take place days before and/or during Episode 4, everything does make sense and tie together. Not disappointing at all like Episode 7 was. Ugh! Rogue One is appropriate for children, but still provides a lot of tongue-in-cheek and old school references for the mature audience.

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