There is not an excuse I have not heard for ethical failure. But when I investigate a company after allegations of fraud, corruption or workplace wrongdoing, I almost always find a complacent, captured or entrenched board that did not take corrective action. In a few cases, boards actually encouraged the wrongdoing.
The first myth is that the board is a “good” board. There is no relationship between the profile of directors and whether the board is “good.” Often times, there is an inverse relationship, as trophy or legacy directors typically lack industry and risk expertise, are not really independent, are coasting and not prepared to put in the work, or they themselves may not possess integrity.
How important is integrity? Extremely. Three factors make for a good director or manager: competence, commitment and integrity, with integrity ranking first. Otherwise, you have the first two working against you.
Integrity needs to be defined, recruited for, and enforced. “Does your colleague possess integrity?” “Yes” is an answer to this perfunctory question. Full marks. But when I define integrity to include avoiding conflicts of interest, consistency between what is said and done, ethical conduct and trustworthiness—and guarantee anonymity—I get a spread of performance scores. Those who do not possess integrity in the eyes of their colleagues are poison and should be extracted from any board or a senior management team. It is a recruitment failure to elect or hire them in the first place.
When fraud, toxic workplaces, bullying, harassment and pressure do occur, the bad news needs to rise. Boards need to ensure that protected, anonymous reporting channels exist and are used—including for a director or executive to speak up in confidence, and for an in- dependent consequential investigation to occur. If a whistleblowing program has any manager as the point of contact, it is not effective.
Frequently, I find ethical design and implementation failure are the culprits, with codes of conduct, conflict of interest policies, whistleblowing procedures, culture and workplace audits, and education and communication being perfunctory at best, overridden by management at worst, and not taken seriously by employees or key suppliers, with minimal assurance and oversight by the board.
After ethical failure happens, executives argue that it is a lone rogue employee or an isolated incident. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is an employee who reflects the true and actual culture, internal control environment and practices of the organization, and who is attracted to and flourishes within them. There is no such thing as a rogue employee. It is a board that approved the conditions that management proposed within which employees operate.
This lax control environment, where self-interest is pursued and where pressure is applied, is the heart of ethical failure.
Nowhere is there a more shocking lack of internal controls over employee and agent behaviour than in some corrupt jurisdictions where Western firms do business. Not only is the potential for fraud rampant, but the costs of compliance wind up being borne by companies that do not bribe and have proper controls. They are penalized for doing things right, and forced to compete on an unequal playing field.
This is why Western governments are seeking to put their countries and companies in the most competitive position possible. They are enforcing anti-corruption laws using long arms of justice to prosecute bribery. They are also debarring companies from government contracts who commit ethical breaches. This debarment is a powerful motivator to spur investment to internalize the costs of internal controls over integrity.
Western industry will mistakenly argue that integrity laws will disadvantage them or cost their industry jobs, but the reality is the opposite. Tough integrity laws will prevent substandard competitors from offering bribes, will reduce recipients’ incentive to receive bribes, and will strengthen Western companies that compete on the basis of price, quality and service.
*Richard Leblanc is an associate professor, governance, law & ethics, at York University’s Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies and a member of the Ontario Bar. E-mail: email@example.com.