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My Company Needs An Ethics Officer! Why?
by Bruce Hamm


Company officials have the expertise to obtain financing, to build production facilities, obtain human resources, market their products or services, educate and train the workforce, and achieve their financial goals. They also know how to motivate their workers to achieve the company's goals, so why would a company need someone specifically to run an ethics program? Shouldn't the company already have the capability to establish and maintain ethics in their workplace?

Executives have most of these talents but very few learned, either as a child or even by experience, how to influence the moral behavior of a large group of people in an organization. For many executives, the only experience they get would be in their immediate family. The family dynamic, however, is vastly different than any other kind of organization because typically one influences one's family (i.e. children) from the time they are young, not after they become adults with established beliefs and internal motivations. Our culture typically only teaches religious leaders these types of skills.

Generally, executives only directly, personally influence their contemporaries, meaning their immediate subordinates. Indirectly they influence concentric circles of subordinates. However, like a pebble that disturbs a calm pond, their influence weakens the farther from the immediate center of activity. The outermost waves continue to increase distance from the next circle and eventually diffuse into the overall surface of the water until they are no longer visible and we can no longer see their effect. The larger the pond, the more these farthest waves diffuse making it more difficult to see any effect. When one does see any kind of disturbance at the edges of the pond, it is virtually impossible to determine if the cause was the pebble or some other force.

This allegory illustrates the way ethics works in an organization. The leaders may be able to impact circles very close to their center of influence but without direct, concentrated effort the farther out in the organization one goes, the less influence these leaders can exert. In effect, just as electrical systems need relay stations to continue to transmit power down a far-reaching line, executives need people to assume that role in the organization to transmit the communications effectively.

Executives are already hard pressed for time. To ask them to further focus the organization's attention on ethics puts further strain on what time they do have. That is why having one person concentrate this effort within the company makes so much sense, especially when one considers how important good values are for today's successful companies. Establishing acceptable ethics within an organization takes a unique set of skills many of which simply don't exist within an organization's pool of talent. However, experts can train existing staff in these skills. Having a single point person responsible for educating the staff about ethics and managing ethics incidents is vital because of the focus needed.

What kind of training should an ethics specialist receive? They should first know something about formal ethics. Because ethical systems can be complex, they should know something about the theoretical frameworks for acceptable ethical systems. Because getting people to open up and participate in ethics concerns is vital, they should know something about how to collect and investigate reports of ethical lapses. This mainly focuses on achieving and maintaining trust within the organization. Because acceptable ethics are not always easy to apply in practical situations, they should know how to write and interpret codes of conduct so that the staff gets the best advice about how to follow the code. Because being ethical requires some effort from both staff and executives, they should know how to inspire the workforce to work toward the goal of always choosing the right course of action.

In some sense an ethics officer for a corporation is like a philosopher, counselor, police officer, prosecutor, jury, judge, jailer and even priest all rolled into one. The delicate process is to balance all these roles in that one person and learn to preach without being preachy. Usually, the best way to do that is by example. In order to be effective, all these roles should really focus on the positive whenever possible. Yes, sometimes we must apply stern discipline. In those cases, it is difficult to see the positive. However, as long as one is fair, when one considers the impact on the credibility of the program, there is a positive outcome.

Once you select a chief ethics officer, giving them the authority and resources to accomplish your goals is critical to their success. They need to spread the word and engage your personnel to walk with them toward the objective of acting ethically in all business endeavors. In larger organizations, a chief ethics officer may need associate ethics officers to assist with transmitting the message and applying the principles in remote locations. In successful programs, it is very much like a spider web. A typical spider cross connects threads at various points supporting the entire web and making it stronger.


The Author

Bruce Hamm

Bruce Hamm studied for the Catholic priesthood obtaining a BA in philosophy with an emphasis on ethics.  He has experience as a volunteer police officer.  He has over eight years in US Navy combat operations, coordinating a tactical data link between various battle group elements, controlling combat aircraft and instructing combat operations.  Then entering corporate management, Bruce conducted numerous workplace investigations, managed compliance for one employer and developed a Business Ethics program for another.  In 2001, he completed the “Managing Ethics in Organizations” Executive Development Course from the Center for Business Ethics at Bentley College and the Ethics Officer Association.  Combining his practical understanding of how organizations work with his desire to create healthy corporate cultures, he earned an MBA in Organizational Effectiveness at Marylhurst University.  Bruce is now also an adjunct instructor with DeVry University Online teaching Business Ethics and other general business topics.  Bruce is WatchIT’s Business Ethics and Compliance, Subject Matter Expert.  With two other professionals, Bruce was instrumental in the formation and continuing development of The Greater Omaha Alliance for Business Ethics.  Contact Bruce at and visit

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