On April 10, 1933, during a meeting with a German ministry official in charge of university matters, a delegation of deans and professors from Freiburg University were “reminded that dismissals of Jewish faculty members had to be carried out promptly.” The professors pledged that “the decree would be loyally implemented.” By April 12, at 10 a.m., the order of the expulsion of the Jews from the university faculty had been fully complied with. Jewish members of the medical faculty received notifications that read: “According to the order of the academic rectorate, I inform you that, with reference to Ministry Order NO. A 7642, you are placed on indefinite leave. Signed: the Dean, Rehn.” (Nazi Germany and the Jews: Volume I, The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939, by Saul Friedlander, p.51).

Had there been a compliance officer at the university, he or she would have been proud.

History has taught us that the willingness of institutions and individuals to comply – obey orders – has been an indispensable feature of every authoritarian regime, including that of the Nazis. Thankfully, at least some organizations and individuals are not as readily compliant today. In January 2017, when President Trump issued an executive order to suspend immigration from seven mostly Muslim countries, Acting Attorney General Sally Yates refused to enforce that order, crowds flooded airports in protest, and prominent business leaders joined the protests in words and deeds. Over the past month, when the administration separated children from parents at the borders, professional associations and civic, religious, and business leaders spoke up, and governors and airlines refused to partake in enforcing the policy.

Individuals are not only speaking up in their personal capacity; they are bringing their ethics and values to work. At Microsoft, employees posted an open letter protesting their company’s contract with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. At Google, employees organized protests of the “Muslim ban” and signed objections to the use of Google technology in Pentagon’s weaponry program. What have been notably absent in these debates, however, are the voices of the corporate ethics and compliance professionals and their associations. Most astonishingly, in the midst of its employees’ protests, Google removed its long-standing motto “Don’t be evil” from its Code of Conduct: the very motto cited by the employees in their letter of protest.

Compliance has muted ethics: that is what is happening in our profession, and that was what happened in authoritarian regimes.

By the nature of the profession, moral courage should be in the fiber of ethics and compliance professionals. It is our job to speak truth to power. I know many compliance officers who have paid costly personal prices for their efforts to address wrongdoings in their companies. That courage, however, turns to uncertainty or even fear when the issue involves questioning laws and rules themselves, rather than questioning the company’s obedience to them. In other words, a compliance officer may be filled with righteous courage when she is pointing out that her company has violated the law, yet she may feel uncertain about questioning the ethics of the laws. “We don’t want to talk politics at work,” I often hear.

This unquestioning compliance, and the fear of bringing “politics” to work, have silenced and sidelined the supposed voice of ethics in corporations, in a time when the ethics of our businesses is what we need to prevent another destructive regime.

The obedience and fear are also compromising the credibility of the “ethics and compliance” professionals. Many compliance professionals obsess over gift and entertainment to foreign government officials. These same professionals, however, shift uncomfortably in their seats when I bring up corporate payments to Michael Cohen, corporate events at Trump properties, or Scott Pruitt’s dealings with industries regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Compliance blogs have written detailed accounts about the improprieties of the business dealings of the first daughter of Uzbekistan, but there is hardly a compliance whisper about the propriety of the business dealings of the first daughter of the United States. Stopping business for human rights abuses abroad is courage; asking whether business should be stopped for human rights abuses at home is just disruption.

In my LinkedIn posting “Mission Matters” a year ago, I explained the disconcerting cognitive dissonance of trying to hold companies to standards that our current administration is not living up to and how hypocritical it felt.  In the year since, I have experienced the same sense of dissonance and hypocrisy as I hear ethics and compliance professionals urging employees to “speak up” and “do the right thing” while arguing that it is “inappropriate” to discuss “politics” at work. Somehow, issues of public accountability and human rights are “ethical” when they occur abroad, but when they take place in our own country, they are magically “political” issues that can’t be touched with a ten-foot pole.

Over the last year, I have asked my fellow ethics and compliance professionals what they would do if they were serving in German hospitals, law firms, banks, schools, civil service, in the 1930s, when the law required the expulsion of Jews. I then ask them what they would do if their companies have to fire their DACA employees if the law requires it. The response has always been silence. Silence not just to hypotheticals, but to real-life ethical questions such whether our companies should do business with organizations that violate human rights or public trust when those organizations are our own government agencies.

Ethics, I am afraid, has become more corporate branding than real commitment by the professionals who wear it on their sleeves. Just hours before the news broke about AT&T’s payments to Michael Cohen, AT&T’s received an ethics award for its compliance program. Three days later, when AT&T’s CEO apologized for “a serious misjudgment,” no mention was made of the very department that was supposed to guard against such misjudgment. Similarly, in Novartis CEO’s acknowledgment of hiring of Cohen as a “mistake,” no mention was made of its “Ethics, Compliance, and Risk” function whose job was supposed to be preventing such mistakes. In fact, in an interview with Forbes, the former CEO of Novartis who signed the contract with Michael Cohen was asked: “Was there anyone in the process who should have told you no, or at least say, Look, Joe, do you know who this guy is?” His answer: “You can imagine I wish that happened.”

Whether our function is called ethics, compliance, risk, or obedience, it is now silently irrelevant, even in an ethical crisis.

The fact is, politics is already in the workplace: it has always been and always will be. The only question is whether ethics is. The employees at Microsoft and Google who question their companies’ role in government’s policies are raising ethical questions directly relevant to their work, with or without their colleagues who walk around with “ethics” in their titles and chant “do the right thing” in their speeches.

Compliance without ethics is just following orders. We know, from history, that unquestioning obedience can lead to the destruction of humanity. If we are content to be corporate obedience professionals, we can continue to ask “what does the government want us to do” and “loyally implement[]” accordingly as Freiburg University did. If, however, we want to be ethics professionals, we have to earn our credibility by helping our colleagues and companies voice their ethical concerns, starting with raising our own.

One thought on “Our Voices Matter

  1. Hui, it is very true what you are saying in you article. The difference between compliance and ethics is the tricky point. Ethics is something that comes from within, is part of our core. Compliance comes from the outside, is part of the environment that surrounds us. Ethics is a matter of common sense and should be natural, while compliance is teachable, which in a practical manner is trainable and measurable. Ethics for those who do not want to leave their comfort zone is a challenge, yet compliance makes their life easier as they can hide themselves behind the laws and regulations when requiring an organization and its employees to follow what was established by a third party, using such obligation as an excuse to go after specific standards. In many situations one, to be ethical, has to be brave, has to speak loud when needed, has to fight against groups and, unfortunately, this is not an easy task for some type of personalities at all.


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