Whistleblower vs. Values Advocate; Ethics vs. Compliance

by Edward Henkler on May 19, 2015

On 15-Apr-15, in addition to celebrating tax day, I had the pleasure of hearing Frank Bucaro’s presentation entitled “The Importance of Ethics in Successful Businesses”. I’ll save his comment about whistleblowers until the end and focus instead on his comments about compliance vs. ethics. In his experience, companies spend orders of magnitude more on compliance than they do on ethics. In other cases, the two roles are combined under a Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer (or vice versa). Sounds like an efficient approach but they are very different concepts.

Frank Bucaro

Several quotes arose during the discussion:

“We listen with our eyes not our ears. It’s what you do, not what you say.” (Bucaro?)

Change the question from “Can I do something?” to “Should I do something?” (Bucaro?)

“What you do speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you are saying” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Another spin on ethics vs. compliance comes from the Wall Street Instructors (Google search result):

Ethical behavior is an internal mechanism — as individuals we perceive “right and wrong” in a particular situation and act accordingly.  Compliance, on the other hand, is “external”.  There are rules, promulgated by others, and we choose to comply with those rules or not.  The rules may or may not reflect our perception of right and wrong — but they represent a consensus of what society feels is “right” or “wrong”.   So there is a major distinction between ethics and compliance.  Simply following the rules does not make an action ethical — at least that’s the lesson of the <Nuremberg> war trials.  Nor is violation of an unjust law or rule necessarily unethical — for example, Ghandi’s march to the sea to evade the British salt tax, or Rosa Parks taking a seat at the front of the bus may have been illegal, but not necessarily unethical.

I would simply say that compliance is what guides us when someone is watching and ethics guide us when no one is watching. With more focus on ethics, perhaps there would be less need for regulation and enforcement. The focus would be on establishing an ethical culture that helped us judge the correct action when confronted by novel situations.

Back to whistleblowers, which seem to be a frequent media topic. The speaker had a family member who was a whistleblower. As time passed, they were fired, shunned by friend and family, and rendered virtually unemployable. Shouldn’t we view whistleblowers as employees with the highest potential integrity rather than pariahs?

The intuitive answer is yes but…would you hire a whistleblower? Would you hire them if they were called Value Advocates instead?

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