Good Ethics at Work Lie in the Hiring

The Enron mess sure seems to be opening up a lot of old wounds.

For instance, several years ago, I was employed by a popular consumer electronics company, until it lost half its stock value overnight when it was accused of playing fast and loose with its financials. Thankfully, being fresh out of school, I had only my mind to lose instead of a fat retirement account.

One must be careful talking about crooked executives, though. Chicanery at the highest levels of corporate America has been tolerated - even romanticized in books and films - since the Rockefellers, Mellons and Kennedys made their fortunes. It's part of our culture. And it's not like we haven't heard populist politicians before preaching reform when hard-working employees are suddenly feeling abused.

Public concern about ethics is cyclical, like hemlines and teenagers' musical tastes. In vogue now are corporate accounting practices, privacy concerns and executive greed. When several on-the-brink dot-coms wanted to sell their online customer lists, consumer advocates protested. When employers began to monitor workers' e-mails and Web surfing behaviors, employees and privacy advocates stewed. And there are always suspicions about relationships between vendors and IT executives, and between recruiters and IT workers.

We in IT have a choice: subscribe to some code of ethics, or don't. But no policy, program, employer or government can force us to make this choice. On the other hand, no one forced people to work for Enron or to play Russian roulette with their retirement accounts.

Don't expect clarity on what passes for ethics. Deciding where to draw the line on business behavior reminds me of the inability of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964 to adequately explain what constituted pornography and obscenity. Instead, he declared, "I know it when I see it." The same holds true for us. Ultimately, we'll know the companies that best match our personal codes of ethics and should select them as our ideal employers.

This hasn't stopped companies from attempting to police ethical matters, including by using these strategies:

Making employees sign a code of ethics. Lists of ethical standards and practices are simply corporate liability boilerplates that undermine trust and are largely ignored by workers.

Hiring an ethics consultant. College professors moonlight as consultants to arbitrate employer-employee showdowns on ethical matters and to help employers refine policies and practices on corporate values and ethics. Though helpful, they typically arrive too late to change anything truly consequential and have trouble navigating ethics in the real world of businesses operating under extreme pressure to grind out profits.

Appointing a chief ethics officer. Along with an independent ethics review group advising the board of directors, "the other CEO" is tasked with keeping alive the notion that ethical concerns do matter. This sounds good, but reality dictates that this is viable only for companies in which the chief executive's power and influence have been sufficiently checked and balanced.

The only true way to enforce ethical behavior norms is to select and hire the right people. With a focus on personal and professional ethics upfront, enforcement is much easier, and outcomes are more predictable. But this must start at the CXO level so that appropriate behaviors can be modeled by the workforce in the same fashion we model our parents' ethical imprinting.

- David Foote is president and chief research officer at Foote Partners LLC, a management consultancy and IT workforce research firm in New Canaan, Conn. Contact him at dfoote@footepartners.com.

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