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Comms: Lessons from “The Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure”

A friend of mine sent me an e-mail telling me that I needed to go check out the Freakonomics webcast because there was an episode on ethics communications and training.  The episode’s provocative title is “Government Employees Gone Wild.”  In the podcast, Steven Dubner, the host, profiled a document called, “The Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure” (EEF).  Dubner also interviewed its current editor, Jeff Green, Senior Attorney in the Standards of Conduct Office, which is part of the Office of the General Counsel of the Department of Defense, and Steve Epstein, the founding editor of the Encyclopedia, and now Chief Counsel for Ethics and Compliance at Boeing.

The DoD publishes the EEF, which is a Word document you can download here (the Freakonomics podcast site also offers a link for updates).  Epstein created it when he held the position that Green currently holds in an effort to keep C&E training fresh.  The EEF contains a sampling of the ethical violations employees have committed throughout the U.S. government.  It’s divided into the usual sections, like Bribery, Conflicts of Interest, and Gift Violations.  Each violation is synopsized into a paragraph or two that describe the offense and the subsequent punishment.

The best practice recommendation for years has been to publicize the C&E violations that occur at our companies.  One company I worked with that did it said that the intranet page where they post the violations is the most visited internal website at the company.  It’s like the New York Post or Us Weekly of the corporate world.  The companies that don’t do it tell me that it’s the legal department that prevents them from using this effective tool.  Mostly it comes down to the fear that the employees and ex-employees profiled will sue for libel or slander or a violation of privacy rights.

As a lawyer, I understand some of the concerns that these legal departments express, but as a C&E professional, I believe it’s worth the fight to convince the lawyers to take on the risk.  The EEF is a fantastic example of how to provide enough information to illuminate the violations taking place but holding back most identifying details.  (As a side note, people always know the underlying reasons for an employee’s sudden, unexpected departure from a company.  When the official line runs counter to the grapevine, the company loses credibility and erodes employee loyalty and allegiance.)

The EEF is one of the greatest things I’ve ever read.  First, it’s an effective counter against the sentiment we sometimes hear from employees during training:  “that would never happen here.”  Second, it demonstrates that those who commit ethical misconduct will be punished.  Third, I’ll confess to enjoying the voyeuristic aspect of reading about some of the more salacious ethical failures.  If I ever take a job with the government, I know in entertaining detail what not to do.  Don’t you wish all of your employees did?

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