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Ethics Risk Reduction -
What You Can Do Right Now

by Christopher Bauer, Ph.D.


Each of us has the potential to cross ethical boundaries, no matter how virtuous we believe ourselves to be. We are particularly at risk if we believe that knowing the rules, in itself, is sufficient to keep our behavior within appropriate bounds. We must all stay simultaneously vigilant of the rules and the personal risk factors we each carry for ethics difficulties.

Who is at Risk and Why?

Every one of us can carry ethics risk factors onto the job. These can include problems as diverse as financial strain, relationship difficulties, emotional distress, health problems, etc. Each can set the scene for ethics violations all too easily simply because each causes us to look for quick fixes, including inappropriate ones. That is simply our nature as humans - we have strong drives to reduce our pain and increase our comfort. Without effective self-monitoring coupled with appropriate self-control, this is a terrific environment for the development of all kinds of ethics problems.

Perhaps needless to say, ethics violations come in all shapes and sizes and what some might consider a "small" indiscretion may still have extremely large consequences for you and your company. Someone - anywhere in your company - tolerating "a little" inaccuracy in financial reporting, telling what they think of as a "white" lie, engaging in "a little" substance use on the job, accepting a "tiny" inducement, etc., can each result in catastrophic financial, legal, and public relations nightmares. Don't be fooled into thinking it can't happen at any and every level of your company. Despite the current stereotypes, most ethics violations - even the most egregious ones - are not caused by scheming, criminally-minded executives. Those are just the stories we read about every day because they make good press.

Remember, knowing the rules is simply where we all need to start as far as ethics risk reduction - it is necessary but not sufficient. The vast majority of ethics violations are caused by otherwise good people who know exactly what constitutes appropriate behavior. However, they are drawn into progressive indiscretions and simply don't have the knowledge or skills to intervene appropriately.

How Can Risk be Reduced?

Each of us, regardless of our best intentions, has the potential to be swayed in our judgment by the stresses and pressures that life throws our way. Paying attention to those stresses - both on the job and off - and acting immediately to deal with them is frequently what makes the difference between maintaining appropriate professional behavior and failing to do the right thing.

It goes without saying that policies and procedures need to be in place to assure appropriate oversight and that employees need well crafted and on-going training on whatever your rules and behavioral expectations might be. However, employees at all levels also need training in how best to both recognize and resolve ethical challenges as they appear in day-to-day decision-making. This essential part of the ethics training equation is lacking in an alarming number of companies.

Remember, following the rules can already be a challenge for some people, especially those with the risk factors described above - acting appropriately in circumstances where there is not a clear rule can be far more difficult. Employees need clear guidelines about how your company's values are to be applied to resolve questions not addressed by specific policies and procedures.

The goal here isn't to have a rule for everything - that would be oppressive even if it were possible. Rather, the intended goal is twofold. The first goal is to teach your employees to recognize where they may personally be at particular risk for ethics problems and how best to mitigate that risk. The second goal is to develop policies and procedures that provide both directions and persistent reinforcement for the prevention and appropriate resolution of ethical challenges.

Another extremely valuable and persistently overlooked tool is a clear, concise, easily memorized, and easily applied ethics and values statement. From day one, let employees know what your company stands for and what it means to bring your company's values to life. This will never take the place of effective ethics training and oversight but will provide a solid foundation on which to develop the rest of your ethics and compliance programs.


The Author


Christopher Bauer, PhD, of Bauer Ethics Seminars helps companies save significant time and money by preventing ethics problems rather than cleaning up after them. His latest book is "Better Ethics NOW: How To Avoid The Ethics Disaster You Never Saw Coming". He also publishes a Weekly Ethics Thought available by email. Information on Dr. Bauer's programs as well as free subscriptions to his Weekly Ethics Thought can be found at .

Many more articles in Ethics in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2006 by Christopher Bauer. All rights reserved.

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