When we sign up for a Netflix account, the company agrees to provide us with programming, and we agree to pay a monthly fee.

In addition, we agree not to share our password with people outside of our household.

Oh, but wait! That last bit is in the small print that no one reads. You know, just above the “I accept” button. If no one reads that stuff, and everyone knows that no one reads that stuff, then it’s not enforceable, right?


“I accept.” It’s pretty straight-forward English.

So Netflix is entirely within its rights to enforce the agreement, and everyone complaining about it should have an honest look in the mirror.

If they knew

What would your mother think?

What if it were on the front page of the newspaper?

These two integrity tests apply strong emotional pressure.

But here’s a more subtle test, one that we can use for most interactions:

If the people you’re interacting with discover what you already know, will they be glad that they did what you asked them to?

Seth Godin, The Practice, #36

Peace and quiet

I was a senior in high school when the Challenger exploded.

I was in class at the time of the launch. I think it was chemistry. The teacher had rolled in a television set for all of us to watch. I remember how quiet the whole school got after the explosion. Not just my classroom; the whole school.

Allan McDonald never stayed quiet. McDonald was the engineer who refused to approve the Challenger launch. He knew that the O-rings at the booster rocket joints would likely fail in the unusually low temperatures of launch day. He spoke up before the launch but was overruled by his company’s executives.

Then, 12 days later, in a closed hearing of a presidential commission investigating the explosion, he spoke up again and corrected the record after a NASA official tried to suggest that McDonald had approved the launch. Embarrassed, his company demoted him in an effort to silence him. When the US Government heard of the demotion, it threatened to remove the company from all future NASA contracts. McDonald was promoted back and put in charge of redesigning the rocket joints.

After his retirement in 2001, he became an advocate of ethical decision-making to engineering students, to engineers and to managers, both in the private sector and in government agencies.

He never stayed quiet on the importance of doing the right thing.

McDonald passed away on Saturday.

He can rest in peace.

Truth and trust

“Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with the important matters.”

Albert Einstein

Today we will be presented with numerous opportunities to speak or to remain silent.

Each opportunity will either build trust or destroy it. Being truthful, and true to yourself, is a sure way to build trust.

How would you know, you might ask?

Think of a time you were lied to.

Want a good culture? Ease up on the scary stories.

In a recent piece, Andre Pinto reminds us that “exposure to other people‚Äôs dishonesty might lead us to be dishonest as well.”

Pinto points out that our moral compass is not fixed and can be swayed by how things are done around us. It can be swayed either way, so that other people’s honesty can also lead us to be more honest. The same goes with trust, respect or integrity.

This highlights the danger of sharing a disproportionate number of real cases of wrongdoing within a company, a practice that many ethics and compliance programs have adopted. By sharing bad examples on a weekly or monthly or even quarterly basis, we risk normalizing the behavior and increasing its frequency.

I have written before about the benefits of recognition. My take has usually been that when we “recognize” one person for their good behavior, what we actually do is help everyone else recognize the behavior we want to see. Well, social science tells us that if they see it often enough, they might start adopting it. Thus, we ought to favor positive examples over negative ones.

The need to fit in

People want to fit in.

For centuries, if we didn’t fit in with the tribe, we could not survive. We lost access to food, shelter and fire. We had to fit in or die.

This instinct is still with us. And so we want to fit in with our family, with our friends, with our colleagues. This means that we’ll sometimes do things we don’t believe in just to be accepted.

This heightens the importance of corporate culture. If the culture tolerates small acts of cheating, lying and stealing, newcomers will soon understand what they need to do to fit in. Add the snowball effect, and eventually you have big acts of dishonesty.

Why not create a culture of trust, respect and integrity instead?

At will

In many countries, employment is “at will”.

This means that we can get a job without having to sign a multi-year contract and we can quit anytime we like if a better opportunity presents itself.

It also means that an employer can let us go at any time for convenience. If the economy is bad, they can let us go. If they don’t like the types of movies we watch on the weekend, they can also let us go.

There is more room for abuse in such “unregulated markets”, and most of the employment abuses comes from employers (employees don’t kill their income just to spite their employers). This is why corporate values are important. Values like trust, respect and integrity can prevent jerks from firing employees for no good reason. Where there is no rule, values fill the gap.

Leaders should meet regularly with HR to review recent terminations, with a goal to verify that they were both legal and ethical.

Ethical stories

Many leaders now include a few words about the importance of ethics when addressing employees.

It’s usually at the end of the speech. There’s a short and dramatic pause, the CEO puts on a serious look and says: “Now, let me add that none of this matters unless we do things the right way…”

Those endings are important but, eventually, they feel formulaic and employees tune out.

There is another, perhaps better way.

Suggest that your leader sprinkle ethical stories throughout her speech instead, without using the word “ethics” with a capital E. She can describe how the company created trust with a new customer, which led to a big win. She can share how many employees – including executives – were disciplined for being disrespectful to others during the last quarter. She can explain how the company increased its spend with a supplier who acted with integrity. And so on.

These passing comments will have a greater impact because they are more real than an abstract Ethics Speech.

Collect your stories, share them, and watch how they become part of who you are as an organization.

Adding flexibility to rules

Organizations are complex.

To operate them efficiently, rules are helpful. When you see something that works, it helps to create a process – a rule – around it. The rule creates an algorithm that can be preserved and shared and followed.

At the same time, the rule preserves the status quo. It creates rigidity. When change inevitably comes, resistance leads to breakage.

What if we could adapt before we break?

That’s where values come in. Values are flexible. We can perform with integrity and show respect and foster trust in various ways. We can change the rules as necessary without changing our values.

Values are to adaptive performance what rules are to tactical performance.

Don’t pontificate

“If you know what’s good for you, you’ll do as I say.”

A few generations ago, this was a common threat issued to children by parents. It was effective because it appealed to the child’s self-interest. No nagging. No pleading. No argument about good or bad. Children immediately understood the practical benefits of changing their behavior.

No one would recommend replicating this practice with adults in the workplace today. But the concept of appealing to our employees’ self-interest when promoting ethics and compliance still has merit. We have safety policies because we want our employees to go home safely every night. We provide training and implement controls so that they don’t inadvertently break the rules and lose their job. We ask them to promote organizational integrity because it gives them access to the resources they need to be successful.

Our job as E&C professionals is to protect the organization and its employees. Their wellbeing is closely connected. If we can show this connection (not pontificate), we are more likely to get compliance.