Recently, one of the largest companies in the United States hired an ethics officer to review how business decisions are made and how internal policies need to change to become more transparent. The company is Boeing, headquartered in Chicago, and the ethics officer, Bonnie Soodik, was hired to oversee corporate conduct in policy and decision-making. She heads a unit called the Office of Internal Governance, and she reports directly to the president.
Not long after she was hired, Soodik began to grapple with the consequences of Boeing's ethical lapses with the Department of Defense (DOD). As Boeing negotiated for a lucrative contract to construct its 767 airplane for use as a tanker-refueler, the company lured the DOD contract reviewer to take a special, well-paying job with the company to be able to refine the new contract to give a better deal to Boeing. This new employee also was given free rein to lobby with her former employer (DOD) to negotiate more contracts.
The senior staff at DOD discovered what had transpired and demanded Boeing's new hire-their former staffer-be relieved of all responsibilities in dealing with the Pentagon. The Pentagon wouldn't accept the offer as negotiated with Boeing and threatened to take the work away from Boeing. In the end, several people lost their jobs at Boeing, including CEO Phil Condit. The new CEO, Harry Stonecipher, kept Soodik in her ethics review responsibility and has vowed to make Boeing a model of corporate ethics.
Here's a question for you: Who does the ethical review of the decisions made by your company, organization, or agency? Few of us are in Boeing's position to create a separate position on staff to be the ethical watchdog. Hospitals, for example, have someone dedicated to medical ethics to think through a difficult or troublesome medical choice. But they may not have a business ethicist handy to assist with a difficult challenge, such as the extent to which the billing department should pursue debtors who can't or won't pay an incurred hospital charge.
We have neither the resources nor the inclination to hire someone to challenge the prevailing corporate culture when an employee or even a company president makes a decision or takes action that's illegal, questionable, or potentially harmful.
If there are ethical decisions, most small to mid-sized businesses refer any questions to an attorney. Business leaders believe, rightly or wrongly, that the corporate attorney can evaluate the legal risks of a company's decision or action. They certainly earn their money doing a legal review. Yet a good attorney will tell you they don't necessarily give an ethical review of a proposed choice.
The same pattern is true when referring such questions to the company's accounting firm. The accountant can provide excellent advice regarding whether an action is in compliance with accounting principles and standards, but they aren't really equipped to evaluate the full ethical dimensions of an issue.
So who can serve as the ethical advisor when a company can't hire someone to do so? Some seek out their minister, rabbi, or imam, thinking they can engage in reflection on business ethics. As an ordained minister, I can say there are limits to the ability of ordained persons to give advice in business ethics because they haven't integrated spiritual principles very well into marketplace challenges.
Others seek out a business professor from a bachelor- or master-level business program at a college or university. The same limits to ethical reflection often apply-many academics have been out of the marketplace for a long enough time that their advice is intelligent, but marginally useful. Others seek out mentors, and still others seek out colleagues who've been in the field longer and may (or may not) know how to deal with ethical quandaries in a specific line of business.
One potentially helpful resource is a consultant who does executive coaching. In working with businesses, public agencies, and nonprofits, I've found so many people in leadership positions don't have a coach or guide with whom to review choices, decisions, and dilemmas. Consultant-coaches, who have a background in ethics and in leadership, can raise key questions that relate an ethical issue to an individual's ethical standards and to a corporate culture.
Executive coaching with an ethical focus is found most often only by personal reference or word of mouth. When I've served in this capacity, it's been a rewarding experience for the company, the corporate leader, and for me as the consultant-coach. Business decisions by themselves are interesting because they involve strategies. Decisions involving business ethics are even more interesting because they involve commitments that drive strategies.
Who does the ethical review for your business, agency, or organization? Make sure there's someone designated to help you navigate the ethically tough choices that come with disturbing frequency in business. IBI