On purpose

Why do we do what we do? 

What drives us to become ethics and compliance professionals? How does a person navigate the first 25 or 35 years of their life to land on this path?

Let’s be honest. Compliance work is difficult work. Where does the fire in our belly come from that makes us want to do this? Is it because we have a love for rules? Is it because we are crushed as the sight of injustice?

Some of us seek virtue, knowing that it will lead to order, fairness and justice. We long for significance through honest connections with others. Those connections reduce our existential angst. We give of ourselves out of a selfish drive to matter. 

We become social animals so that we don’t die while we are living. The same desire leads others to become doctors, educators, firefighters, farmers, actors or soldiers. Like us, they find meaning in purpose, and happiness in the pure joy of the work.

Meanwhile, others run away from their existential angst by seeking immediate rewards that are, at best, external to their work and, at worst, obtained through cheating, lying and stealing. They don’t enjoy the work. They are unhappy and wasting their life.

Why do we do what we do?

Breaking the rules

Today you might be sitting quietly by yourself and have this strange idea about doing something wrong. You’ll probably dismiss the idea quickly.

Or an acquaintance might suggest that you do something wrong. You’ll probably politely decline.

Or your boss might ask you to do something wrong. That will be uncomfortable.

Or the law might ask you to do something wrong.

Today in 1955, the law asked James. F. Blake to use his police powers as a bus driver to sign a warrant for the arrest of Rosa Park after she refused to give up her seat to a white man. To be fair, Blake did not hesitate. Twelve years earlier, Blake had made Parks disembark after she entered his bus from the front door and paid her fare; he wanted her to enter from the back door. But not all bus drivers agreed with the law. What were they supposed to do? What would you have done?

Today we have laws that separate children from their parents at border crossings. We have laws that criminalize sharing our food with the homeless. Perhaps you have rules in your office that are unfair.

Will you enforce them?

Equality and equity

I have three kids.

I love them equally.

But I don’t treat them the same because they are not the same. Each has a different personality, different aspirations, different struggles. In some respect, it would be unfair to treat them equally.

In the workplace, this translates to equity. Equity asks us to see each employee as an individual human being. In doing so, it aims for fairness over sameness.

Because no one is the same, except in that we all want to be treated fairly.

The effect of unfairness on your E&C team

LRN’s Susan Divers recently published an excellent post on the importance of holding senior executives accountable to ensure a strong ethics & compliance (E&C) program.

Her post reminded me of a negative outcome of unfairness that we rarely talk about: the demoralizing effect on the E&C team.

Imagine that a senior executive is found to have violated a policy that would typically result in termination but is instead simply provided with “coaching” by the c-suite, who is judging him too important to lose. Perhaps less than a dozen people will be aware of the investigation and of the discipline imposed, but this small group is sure to include the CECO and a couple of her lieutenants. This will be like clipping their wings. Like deflating their balloon. Insert other rainy analogies here. How are they supposed to carry on, effectively, the mission of creating and touting an ethical culture?

Imagine instead that the executive is terminated and that employees are told that it was the result of a breach of company values. How empowering for the E&C team! What an incentive for all employees to act ethically! What a powerful way to recruit good people and keep bad ones at bay!

How long until all c-suites understand this dynamic?

On rights and obligations

The U.S. Bill of Rights was ratified this month in 1791.

For every right it conferred, the Bill created several obligations on the very government that granted those rights.

And that’s the hidden truth of rights. When you demand one, you create several obligations for other people.

This reality can serve as a check on the fairness of your demands. If the right you demand serves all people (and not just you), then everyone is more likely to accept the burden of the ancillary obligations.

Rules and Truths

There are two types of laws.

There are laws like “tax laws” and “succession laws”. Those are rules that humans invented to create order and fairness and justice. They don’t represent the Truth, so reasonable people can (and do) disagree about what each law should say.

Then there are laws like “the law of gravity”. Those are Truths that humans discovered. They can’t be disagreed with and reasonable people understand that.

Most of us go through our day confusing rules and Truths. At home and at work, we morph personal expectations into rules and then into truths. We believe that people should behave in a certain way and are aghast when they don’t, just as if they had defied the law of gravity.

Today, let’s remember that rules aren’t the Truth.

And the Truth doesn’t care about rules.

Disciplinary guidelines

In court, a party can ask the judge to sign an “Order to show cause”. If she signs it, it forces the other party to explain why they should not be subject to the relief requested.

We’ve had something similar in my organization for several years now in the form of disciplinary guidelines. For example, if an employee engages in retaliatory behavior or lies to an investigator, the guidelines points to termination. If management wishes to keep the employee on the payroll, they need explain why the employee should not be terminated (i.e. show cause).

These are guidelines, not mandatory sentences. And, for now, they address only terminable offenses. Recently, I have been thinking about expanding the guidelines to other behaviors that may not deserve termination but, still, harsh punishment. For example, in what circumstances should a supervisor be demoted to an individual contributor.

Having such guidelines allows us to tell employees, in advance, what the consequences of their actions might be. It allows for consistency and fairness, specifically making it more difficult to have double standards for more senior employees or star performers. It can also make it easier for management to determine and communicate the sanction.

However, disciplinary guidelines can also have negative effects. They can support an unfair termination when management wants to get rid of someone and fails to show cause. In some cases, common sense or good judgment can be obscured by the guidelines.

So in this post, I am asking for your help, for your thoughts. If you have disciplinary guidelines in your organization, how do they work? Have you found them helpful? Do you wish they didn’t exist? If you don’t have guidelines, do you wish you did? If so, what would they look like?

Thanks for leaving your thoughts in the comment section. Much appreciated.

Vote for your employer

Today is election day in the US. Ordinary citizens will vote to elect lawmakers. We’ll give away some of our independence in exchange for the creation of rules that we hope will be just and fair for the community.

In the corporate world, ordinary employees do not vote to elect decisionmakers. It’s not a democracy. In exchange for our work, we receive some personal benefits. The history of master-servant relationships is not a shining example of justice and fairness. In fact, slaves/servants/apprentices/employees have long had to rely on elected lawmakers to keep the masters/decisionmakers in check.

Today, more and more employees actually get to cast one vote: selecting their employer. The new generation of employees is less keen on buying a home and a car and getting into all sorts of debts, making them less dependent on a salary. Technology allows them to run a side business from their phone while lying in bed. When selecting an employer, they can more easily choose the ones that put employees ahead of shareholders.

Come to think of it, we vote for our employer every day when we show up at work.

We should make that vote count.

Until the next revolution

The industrial revolution invented the concept of replaceable parts. Shortly thereafter, the modern educational system was invented to create replaceable workers. Your accountant is worn out or broken? Take her out and replace her with another one. There are plenty.

This reality adds to our existential angst as human being. We increasingly seek joy and meaning outside of work. For many workers, what drives them to work is no longer related to the work itself. Unfortunately, according to the latest social science, these conditions lead to lower performance and an increased risk of employee fraud.

Hardly the ideal conditions for organizations and their ethics & compliance professionals.

It will take some time before the next revolution fixes our workplace and our educational system. Meanwhile, E&C professionals can start the process by asking themselves an important question: am I finding joy and purpose in my work? To be fair, our work is difficult. It is perceived by many as imposing restrictions on their work. We see it as a virtuous path to order, fairness and justice, but we are not always successful in communicating this perspective. It can be tiring to find joy in a confrontational setting. And so we must decide if we would be better suited for another organization, or perhaps for another vocation all together. If we find that this work is in fact for us, then our first order of business is to become a lifelong learner, to care about those we serve, and always to provide value.

Double standards are cancerous

When senior leaders decide to discipline their own more leniently than how low-level employees are disciplined for the same infraction, they typically think that no one will know.

But someone always does. The assistant who anonymously reported that her boss was cheating on his expense report. The ethics officer who received the anonymous report. The few who have access to the system where the allegation was recorded. And those who might be the confidents of the previously-mentioned – among others.

Everyone who knows of an actual double standard become disillusioned. We all believe in fairness and it hurts when we see it stolen. We become less enthusiastic, less engaged. We think “what’s the point?” The entire organization suffers as a result.

Double standards are born out of a lack of courage by those who are in the best position to fight.