Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

Principles of ethical decision-making

Simply put, ethical decision-making is about making choices from a basis of integrity.  Decisions are not pure or in a vacuum.  People make choices in an often very complicated landscape of conflicting interests, isolation from consequences, stubborn habits and heuristics, and narrow cognitive frameworks.

Therefore effective ethical decision making has two components: first, the intention and second, the action.  The intention requires an individual determination to do the right thing for the right reason at the right time.  The action, on the other hand, requires commitment at both the individual and the collective/organizational level to maintain and support the intention.  This process happens amid a complicated context of incentives for, and obstacles to, both individual ethics and corporate culture of compliance.

Risks to ethical decision-making include:

  • Inadequate awareness and information to support best choices
  • Lack of responsibility or context for the choices
  • Inability to escalate questions or concerns
  • Limitations of individual and organizational belief systems (“right” vs. “wrong,” “good” vs. “bad”)

To provide practical support for ethical decision-making, consider:

  • A robust control framework that will make risks, interests, and incentives concrete and credible to all
  • Totality of the nature of compliance includes both mandatory and voluntary aspects (see this post for more ideas on this) as well as disciplinary and functional applications (see this post for more ideas on this)
  • “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” – but rather than focus on the destructive impact of its ineffective implementation, take advantage of its constructive potential in order to create a unitary system of rules and values
  • Communication, not just training; conduct, not just tone; leadership, not just management, and vice versa

In order to make the above successful, best practices must be in place in corporate governance structures.  Concrete buy-in from senior management/executive board; accountability from leadership; policies in place; procedures in place; and effective and dynamic dialogs at all organizational levels avoid compliance by force and create a culture in which ethical decision-making can flourish.

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