Ethics Exchange: Does E&C make us better people?

By Ethics Exchange posted Jul 09,2013 17:31



A new discussion format, Jeff Kaplan and Steve Priest discuss timely and timeless ethics & compliance issues through Ethics Exchange. 

Jeff Kaplan
: When my daughter – who is now 26 – was eight, she had a worrying habit of running out into the middle of the street without checking first for cars. I responded as any E&C person would: I asked her to keep a “safety journal” as a way of trying to change her behavior.  I mention this not because it was a good idea – she refused to comply, as any self-respecting eight-year old presumably would have – but as a way of introducing the topic for today’s conversation:  how does our E&C work change us as people?  Does it make us better - or worse - family members?  Neighbors?  Citizens?

What do you think, Steve?

Steve Priest: Wow….a safety journal? I don’t think I ever read that in a parenting guide. One “truth” we know from recent work on behavior and the mind is that while we may agree with Socrates’ charge to “know thyself,” making objective and fair judgments about ourselves is exceedingly difficult. It is like we all have the evil queen’s mirror on an interior wall telling us how wonderful we are. So I am not sure how working in E&C has changed me over the last 23 years. But that won’t stop me from opining on others.

Jeff: Whether it is our colleagues or ourselves, it seems likely to me that being part of a profession that focuses so much on changing behaviors would impact one’s behavior beyond the professional context.  In the personal setting, I imagine that E&C work does make us more risk sensitive, and that that is mostly good – although, as seen in the safety journal example, one can take it too far, and become oppressive about it.  As another example, hopefully the part of E&C work that concerns promoting respectful treatment rubs off on E&C professionals in ways that make us more respectful in other settings, like interaction with neighbors.  On the other hand, I can see how immersion in investigations and discipline could have a less desirable effect.  Having a parent who does a “root cause analysis” for every misstep you make is even worse than one who sees risk lurking around every corner….

Steve: Jeff, I am not sure about the validity of your premise that “being part of a profession that focuses so much on changing behaviors would impact one’s behavior beyond the professional context.”  If that were true than we should be in awe of the lives of psychiatrists, priests and police. 

Jeff: I’m not saying that E&C people should be lionized, but the connections between our personal and work lives seem to me to be worth consideration – particularly as the lines between the two increasingly blur.

Steve: Here’s where I agree with you . . . and Aristotle. Aristotle said "We are what we repeatedly do.”  That seems to be true, and is now backed up by research. (See, for example, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg.) So if someone is highly respectful in the workplace, it seems unlikely to me that they will become a demeaning SOB once they leave (although with all the road rage I've seen near suburban office parks filled with “civilized, respectful” corporate employees, I am not entirely sure even about this hypothesis.)

Jeff: Bingo – that’s my point. Whether for the right or wrong reasons, E&C becomes baked into us through repetition, and hopefully helps fortify some of the better angels of our nature. And what about the other part of my question: does E&C impact how we act as citizens?  Again, I’m interested in the bad as well as good.   The former might include being overly compliant, which obviously isn't good for a democracy.  The latter hopefully includes a greater openness to the views of others - which our democracy badly needs these days.  Or, do you see no connection of this sort?

Steve: Jeff, I am afraid I see little connection. My hunch is that those in the ethics and compliance profession are more or less the same as the general populace in terms of things like paying taxes, driving safely and being active in the community. I think this is true because we don’t spend most of our time making ethical decisions, but instead are implementing program elements or attempting to fix one bad situation or another. Basic management stuff. Indeed, I find myself slightly squirming when people ask “what kind of big ethical dilemmas do you help firms with?” My (slightly defensive) answer is “I don’t. I help build ethical capacity within the people and structures of the organization.” So I am not making a habit of complex ethical analysis on a daily basis—at least at work.

Jeff: I hear you, Steve, but I think that the ethical capacities that get built in the workplace don’t get left there at the end of each day, like some piece of software belonging to an employer - but hopefully are used in other settings. That’s not only good for us as family members and citizens, but I think your man Aristotle would say the extra repetition should reinforce our capacities to be ethical at work, too.