Ignorance: Not Bliss But an Opportunity

[I’ll be at the Ethics and Compliance Officer Association (ECOA) Annual Ethics and Compliance Conference (AECC) next week in Chicago.  I’m giving a pre-conference workshop on September 24 on global communications.  It has the incredibly long title of “Beyond E-mail:  C&E Communication for a Global, Distributed Audience (or How Do I Communicate with People Who Don’t Have Access to Computers or Who Don’t Speak English as Their Primary Language).”  If you’ll be at the AECC, too, please come find me and say hello!]

It’s hard to face the news every day because so much of what’s on the front pages, paper or electronic, of the world’s newspapers is grim.  Even when you immerse yourself in the news about compliance and ethics (C&E), the news tends to be discouraging – C&E failures sell papers; C&E successes do not ( “We have business conduct standards, everyone follows them, and nothing terrible happens.”)

It takes stepping outside the bubble to be reminded of why the failures keep happening.  Our businesses are not mechanical or digitized systems.  Our businesses are made of people who all have their own interests and hobbies and priorities.  We assume that C&E is in that swirl somewhere, but I’m not so sure.

A friend and I went to a wine bar in Austin over the weekend.  We ordered our glasses of wine and continued our conversation from earlier in the evening, when we were interrupted by the two gentlemen sitting to our right.  They asked the usual questions about what we did for a living.  She is a Chief Compliance Officer; I am a C&E consultant.  Both of them were stumped by the term “compliance and ethics” despite having been in the white collar workforce for at least 25 years.  After some explanation, the usual jokes started about not being compliant or ethical at their employers (both “large, international software companies”).

The jokes weren’t all that funny, but in their context, they weren’t meant to offend.  What I did find funny was that when we started having a deeper conversation about the things that are probably going wrong at their companies, they didn’t believe us.  We explained about corruption and conflicts of interest.  Both of these men were confused by the topics and were incredulous that large companies cared about these issues.

I don’t want to be one of those people who draws huge conclusions from a sample of two guys making conversation because they were bored, but it turns out that I am.  These two men are the mythical “average employee.”  C&E rings only the dimmest of bells for them.  They have not been keeping up with the news about GSK and JP Morgan – in fact, they didn’t know that anything out of the ordinary was happening with these companies.  We didn’t get into any details, but I’d bet $20 that if you described the underlying allegations that have GSK and JP Morgan in the news without any mention of C&E or the law, that neither of these gentlemen would immediately assume that the companies had done anything wrong.

I’m actually encouraged by this.  If the primary reason that people don’t come forward to report misconduct is because they didn’t know what they were seeing was misconduct, we can fix that.  We can fix it with more effective communications and training, and we can fix it by getting out of our offices and having genuine conversations with our employees.  (I do not recommend doing it at a wine bar in Austin.)

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