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Do Codes of Conduct work? Misconduct, Fraud and Ethics.

In a recent interview, I talked about internal controls and ethics and referred to Wells Fargo as an example of the implementation of a Code of Conduct which did not result in the desired ethical behavior.

The reasons, as far as I have been able to observe and analyze are complex, far from obvious and even counter-intuitive. I believe we require a much better and more holistic understanding of the power dynamics, the collective unconscious and the interplay between individual-peer-community dynamics and pressures, sector and industry practices and the national society as well as the global.  This applies especially to transnational corporations and cross-border operations where cultural aspects further add to the complexity and potential failure of a Code of Conduct.

The main reasons why an Ethics Code or Code of Conduct, even if fully embedded, rolled out and vigorously communicated, fails to bring the desired change, center strongly around the following:

Corporate predicaments:

  • Tone at the top (set by CEO or the entire C-suite) mismatches tone at the middle – long-serving middle management has its own practices;
  • Expectations at the top (C-suite, Board but also shareholders) remain profit-focused, no shift towards a greater paradigm shift gets underway;
  • Ethical behavior is mainly valued as reducing litigation risk (and costs) but not valued as profit-generating;
  • Compliance and risk departments are seen as non-profit generating, no counter-narrative from the C-suite is offered/communicated;
  • Weak internal controls including weak HR division are impacting internal whistleblowing and act as a deterrent (rather than deterring misconduct).

Cultural issues:

  • Ethics and the Code of Conduct are being mocked by (long-serving) middle-management as something that will pass as so many initiatives before;
  • Code of Ethics is coupled with zero tolerance – correctly interpreted as unrealistic;
  • Acting ethically may be deemed “nice” and interpreted as weakness rather than a strength (by both gender) – this is usually even more so in industries with fierce competition and a glass ceiling;
  • Morality is not seen as in line with the Code of Conduct – ethics are understood as more abstract and deemed over the top;
  • Morality has been mainly lived and practiced by a (corporate and societal) culture of naming & shaming and scapegoating rather than embracing the messenger who delivers bad news before the event – shooting the messenger has been the norm.

Mechanisms and knowledge missing:

  • No, or no sound, internal crowd-sourcing platform or system to gather issues and reward those who point them out and provide potential solutions are in place – promised anonymity communicates inherent threats/risks to those who wish to protect the organization and name problems versus transparency of issues, discussed in open forums beyond the confines of a department which would indicate openness to fix rather than to blame;
  • Morality and ethics are wrongly deemed as inherent – they are not understood as learned, negotiated, agreed and practiced concepts, rather there is a lack of knowledge that they change in socio-historical contexts and are not universal per se;
  • Lack of respect and integration of experts in behavioral collective change – business consultants rather than social scientists shape the strategy and communication, resulting in a sense of rhetorical unrealistic exercise;
  • Lack of understanding that ethics cannot be imposed but need to be owned by the community of all staff at all levels – which is why crowd-sourcing can be such a powerful approach and which is why Volkswagen’s hierarchical structure played such a central role in the emissions scandal.

Broader factors:

  • A history of severe misconduct with inability to replace all those previously involved (due to size of organization or else) may result in a Code of Conduct being circumvented by creatively finding loopholes (the role of legal professionals in this context is another issue);
  • Other main players in the industry are not embracing a Code of Conduct as strongly, resulting in a competitive disadvantage.

I believe this question is incredibly important and we need a deeper discussion as to why the implementation of Codes of Conduct continue to fail and/or don’t bring the changes we want and need to see as widely and sustainably embedded and practiced as they should. I also believe that ownership (at all levels) of any Code of Conduct plays an extremely important role but is often hugely undervalued and misunderstood.

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