If a Tree Falls in the Forest…

Trees in forest

By Kim McQuillen LPEC, Compliance Training and Communications Specialist, Virginia Commonwealth University

If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

Perhaps you first heard this question when someone tried to challenge you by drawing you into a philosophical conversation. For me, it was my Uncle Roy. He had the maddening habit of stopping you in your tracks with questions like, “Does a rock breathe?” Whether you answered yes or no, his next question would be, “How do you know?” and you were pulled into that conversation whether you liked it or not, as you tried in vain to defend your response.

The advent of National Ethics Awareness Month puts those of us who work in the ethics and compliance space in a somewhat contemplative state (hence, the memory of Uncle Roy and the rock). It occurs to me that by changing that question ever so slightly, it can pull us into a different conversation:

If someone violates your organization’s ethical guidelines and no one sees it, does it impact the culture?

In keeping with the pattern established above (indulge me for a moment), whether you answer yes or no, how do you know?

The short answer is that you won’t, unless you’re paying attention.

Paying attention can look like many things. It can be an accounts payable clerk verifying purchases; it can be a supervisor comparing hours submitted against leave requests; it can be listening to what others in your workplace are saying to – and how they’re treating – each other. These things help us recognize when ethical misconduct and compliance violations have taken place, and from there, once they’re reported, to keep them from happening again.

But what if we aren’t paying attention, and a colleague does something they shouldn’t? Going back to “no one sees it,” will it really make a difference in the culture?

It could. Tiny deviations from the ethical behavior outlined in your Code of Conduct seep in over time, sapping morale, lowering standards and making your workplace culture “sick.”

Even though no one sees them when they’re happening, some things can resurface later. And when they do, they can affect your reputation, your ability to win and retain talented people, and your trust in one another.

Fortunately, many organizations have adopted formalized ethics and compliance (E&C) programs. The reasons for this – no matter the industry – get to the very heart of organizational culture, or as Deal and Kennedy referred to it, “the way we do things around here.”

According to the Ethics and Compliance Initiative’s (ECI’s) Blue Ribbon Panel Report, organizations with high-quality ethics and compliance programs (HQPs) follow these principles:

  • Ethics and compliance is central to business strategy. Leaders and E&C personnel partner to ensure that ethics and compliance is an integrated and essential element in the successful operation of the organization and in its message and actions externally.
  • Ethics and compliance risks are identified, owned, managed and mitigated. Risk assessment is a foundational activity that involves and leverages every employee in early understanding and mitigation of risk and E&C programs have an important role to play in those efforts.
  • Leaders across the organization build and sustain a culture of integrity, a daily habit and expectation of openness. Leaders walk the talk of integrity as a value and the organization consciously builds the capacity and confidence of every employee to speak up when something does not seem right.
  • The organization encourages, protects and values reporting of concerns and suspected wrongdoing. The organization’s processes and actions are designed to demonstrate to employees that reporting is valued and to ensure retaliation for reporting is detected, punished and prevented going forward, so chilling effects are mitigated.
  • The organization takes action and holds itself accountable when wrongdoing occurs. The organization handles wrongdoing in alignment with its values by responsible, timely and thorough action that transparently deals with those responsible and focuses on prevention going forward.

In my experience, most people want to work for an organization that follows these principles. As it turns out, it makes good “business sense,” too. According to Forbes, having a compliance department can help an organization save millions of dollars in fines and damage to reputation. But there’s something even better than that.

When employees know their organization’s compliance team is in place and doing their job, they can rest assured that someone “has their back.” They know the team is fielding reports about suspected wrongdoing and conducting investigations to weed-out bad actors. They not only feel good about where they work, but proud to be there, too.

So, three cheers for the pursuit of integrity in organizations, and for the folks who work in ethics and compliance, and all their frontline partners who contribute to the health of the organizational culture.

And while I still don’t know whether a rock can breathe (apologies to Uncle Roy), I do know that if we’re all paying attention, we’ll hear the proverbial trees falling in the forest and we’ll know who to call when they do.


Blue Ribbon Panel Report. (n.d.). Ethics and Compliance Initiative. Retrieved November 8, 2022, from https://www.ethics.org/blue-ribbon-panel-report/

Deal, Terrence E and Allan A Kennedy. Corporate Cultures : The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life. Addison-Wesley Pub 1982.

Sehested, Thomas. “Council Post: Compliance Can Make or Break Your Company’s Reputation.” Forbes, ww.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2018/07/10/compliance-can- make-or-break-your-companys-reputation/?sh=4b54f2e675a4. Accessed 9 Nov. 2022.