The Ethics – Compliance Divide

The more I speak with companies about their issues and concerns regarding ethics, the more clearly I see how the role of ethics has been diminished through the nature of its association with compliance. In most industries, it seems, ethics and compliance are talked about in the same breath as if they were one and the same. Though sometimes subtle and sometimes not, the implications of this confusion are enormous.

In essence, the more folks talk about ethics and compliance as if they were one thing, the less visible ethics seem to become; the pressure to focus on compliance and regulation is simply too overwhelming to see past it. The focus on compliance and regulation is critically important, obviously, and needs to not be abandoned. However, the exclusion of ethics from the equation – especially while always actually appearing to include it – has the potential for disaster in far too many cases.

My point of entry for these discussions is frequently a discussion about these companies’ objectives in having me provide a keynote, workshop, or seminar. In that conversation, it is amazing – and a bit frightening – how often I hear that their business actually already has a great ethics program because, after all, everyone in the organization knows the rules and how to enforce them. In fact, many of them do have very good oversight and compliance programs in place. However, the thought that a values-based or self-monitoring approach is a needed addition to their current “ethics” (read: compliance and oversight) effort is met with surprise.

I certainly don’t think these folks are in any way anti-ethics. Rather, ethics have become so interpolated and ultimately lost into compliance initiatives that managers and executives have simply forgotten about the ethics portion of the equation. Not only that but I see a whole new generation of managers and executives coming onto the scene who have simply never learned the difference between ethics and compliance so they aren’t actually forgetting it – they never knew!

It is an awkward and unfortunate paradox that the more ethics and compliance are discussed in the same breath, the greater the divide between them seems to become.

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