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

Corporate takedowns: Gawker

This is the final entry in a series of four posts about corporate takedowns.  The first post was about American Apparel.  The second post was about Theranos.  Last week’s post was about the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica data sharing scandal.  Today’s post will discuss Gawker.

Gawker was a blog website focused on New York City celebrity and media news and gossip.  It was launched in 2002 and was a popular source of often controversial content about famous people and prominent organizations.  Gawker faced first public scrutiny and later legal battles about posting videos, e-mails, and other private information that was suspected to have been improperly obtained or in violation of confidentiality or copyright interests.  In 2016, the end of a protracted legal battle over one such posting led to a $140 million legal judgment against Gawker and the company’s resulting bankruptcy.


Selected TED/TEDx talks on justice and ethics

One of the most poignant and timeless discussions related to ethics is the concept of justice. Justice is the measurement of fairness and is defined by theories which vary wildly between and within cultures and countries. Administration of fairness is as crucial to ethics as are, for example, other fundamental ideas of morality such as trust and honesty. Theories of justice may focus on equal distribution, individual treatment, societal consequences, or even punishment and reparations. These differing theories all have their own foundation in a culture’s ethical values and are then impacted by historical events, jurisprudence, or religious beliefs in a variety of ways. Even though justice is so varying and individual, efforts toward and desires for it are indeed universal, and the ethical fundamentals of its moral pursuit are shared as well.

  • Justice is a decision (Ronald Sullivan) – Wrongful convictions are a particularly distressing and compelling example of injustice and need for justice-based reform within the legal system. If an innocent person is incarcerated, he or she is unjustly deprived of freedom, and the victim of the underlying crime misses out on true restoration or reparations as well. Ronald Sullivan argues for the importance of advocacy as the defining competency and mission of criminal law attorneys, especially public defenders. Working as an advocate with the mission of serving justice and ensuring that the individuals in a case are not subjected to injustice positions lawyers to address a moral good and employ the most ethical mode of legal representation.



  • Errors of justice (Asbjørn Rachlew) – Related to the above, wrongful convictions have an obvious striking and lasting impact on the innocent people who are sentenced to jail for crimes they do not commit. In this talk, Asbjørn Rachlew discusses wrongful convictions from the perspective of a police superintendent, especially focusing on those which included false confessions and intense, coercive investigations. From this perspective, Rachlew delves into the root causes for these errors of justice, helping the wrongfully convicted to see the reasons outside of themselves for their injustice as well as helping police and other authorities to understand their responsibilities and the consequences of their actions. For any moral society, thinking about the impact of these errors and the very real damage that can be done to humans because of injustice is a necessary ethical consideration and one that should lead to reform and better practices to ensure that justice is a higher priority.



  • Why Justice Isn’t Enough (Barry Schwartz) – Justice and morality go hand in hand. For a society to be considered moral or on the “good” side between right and wrong, justice must be a respected virtue. A just society is an ethical society. In most cases, this is clearly represented by a distributive system of justice where people deserve what they get and get what they deserve. Both of these outcomes may seem rare to many people, at least from a perception perspective. Indeed, in education, jobs, social standing, and material success of all kinds, people that are seen as having merit often go without while others who appear less deserving or have not worked diligently toward goals nonetheless get everything they could want anyway. The differentiating factor is sometimes just luck. Therefore considering and appreciating the importance of luck could increase social justice and administration of fairness and equitable treatment between individuals who are just as deserving as one another but haven’t been as lucky.



  • What is Fair and What is Just? (Julian Burnside) – What is the role of moral response in justice? What ethical responsibility do individuals and their communities have do something when confronted with injustice? This starts with defining fairness and justice. Just as people must have internal moral codes and ethical registers in order to have any ability to contribute to organizational ethics and integrity within groups, communities, or countries, people must also have individual definitions for and understandings of fairness and justice. Sensitivity to unfairness, and concern with fairness and justice, is an ultimate expression of compassion and a high moral value. The struggle for justice is universal, and is plagued by differing interests and values as well as the desire of many to not engage in confronting difficult or distressing situations, but sincere efforts toward it must be made by ethical individuals.


  • What if justice was something we felt (Ardath Whynacht) – The role of compassion in justice is a powerful evocation of the morality of striving for fairness. As demonstrated in the above talks, there are complicated forces that work against understanding and achieving justice. However, the social and ethical benefits of the effort to all involved are great enough to justify trying. Perhaps justice is more appealing and concrete of a goal if people approach it from a compassionate, humanistic perspective rather than from a legal or abstract wealth and rights distribution basis. Seeing justice from an emotional perspective, and acknowledging its restorative and connecting power, can transform the incentives in society to seek it.

In application, justice and the ethics of its interpretation and attempts to reach it in society is a major topic in the modern legal system, with the actions and decisions of lawyers, judges, and parties to cases all having major influence on the execution of different efforts toward fairness. Individual entitlements, such as to property, other wealth, basic goods, and social status, are also distributed with questions of equal rights or arrangement of inequalities under some vision of justice and ethics. Finally, as provocative as justice itself is the concept of injustice, or errors of justice, and how damage from this can be acknowledged, avoided, or corrected.


Silicon Valley and undoing the normalization of sexism as corporate culture

Much of the attention on Silicon Valley in recent months has been not for new technological innovations or advances in the markets. Unfortunately, the public discussion surrounding the high-tech and start-up world, and the individuals and companies that finance that industry, has been focused on worst practices for corporate cultures. As society at large grapples with gender equity, racial and ethnic representation, generational workstyles, politics in the workplace, and many other diversity challenges, the most frequent conclusion seems to be that the state of things in 2017 is not as progressive or integrated as may have been assumed.

Many high-profile Silicon Valley organizations have coped with this revelation of corporate intolerance very publicly. Among them is Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, a high-profile venture capital firm. Managing partner John Doerr was an investor in some of the highest profile first generation technology companies to come to market: Intuit, Netscape, Amazon, Google. When he hired Ellen Pao in 2005 as his chief of staff, it seemed like he was assertively signalling that Kleiner Perkins wanted to take the lead on elevating qualified women to visible leadership roles in Silicon Valley, where men have overrepresented women in management, and within the even more traditionally male-focused venture capital domain.

Pao’s experiences throughout her tenure at Kleiner Perkins, capped off with her 2015 gender discrimination lawsuit and her firing before that lawsuit came to trial, indicate a different environment. Rather than being valued for her contributions and promoted on her merits, Pao alleges that she was harassed after a workplace romance went bad and that she was often marginalized in her role, expected to take on essentially personal assistant type duties while investing or higher level tasks went to male colleagues. Instead of contributing to a gender-integrated workplace where individuals were elevated for their accomplishments, insights, and commitment to their jobs, Pao paints the picture of a dysfunctional and increasingly hostile environment.

Kleiner Perkins did not have policies or training against sexual harassment at the time Pao worked there. A control framework to identify, prevent, and address these corporate culture issues is imperative. Any company that does not set a tone on these matters and take the time to thoughtfully and proactively set expectations for an integrated, balanced organizational culture demonstrates no credible commitment to workplace equality and the merits of the diversity of viewpoints this brings with it.

Many cultural changes have been underway for so long that they are taken for granted or even pushed against by now as creating an undue burden in the other direction. The truth, however, is that these movements toward a more balanced, integrated workplace are still stymied by a lack of genuine commitment. Ideally the office would looks much more the best version of the world, where people are elevated for their merits and not their demographic traits, and are not kept from even getting on the road to success because of someone else’s decisions about their right to work because of a trait like gender. In order for this to really develop, though, leaders in business (both established ones like Kleiner Perkins and start-ups who are defining their corporate values for the first time) need to take ethical stock of where they stand and if they can commit to creating a culture where all people are accepted and utilized for their merits, then they need to do so visibly and meaningfully. The time of tokenism or promises without true intention needs to be past so that people of all kinds can get into legitimate leadership positions and then pay it forward to the next generation behind them.

Pao did not prevail in her lawsuit, but perhaps it will endure anyway as a test case. While it did not result in a guilty verdict, cases like this one can be a cultural watershed for policy and enforcement standards in companies to mitigate legal risk. Perhaps also other women working in, or fired from, Silicon Valley under similar circumstances can see where Pao succeeded and failed in her legal strategy and take up the cause on their own behalves. Bringing these issues into the public light can certainly drive change in creating a cultural imperative for women in tech to speak up and out.

For more insight on Pao’s experiences in Silicon Valley and happened with her lawsuit against her former employer, see this excerpt from her book on The Cut, originally from New York Magazine.