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

Selected TED/TEDx talks on the ethics of right and wrong

Traditional discussions of morality have often focused on dichotomies of good and bad, virtuous and evil, right and wrong.  This polarized thinking simplifies the world into opposing absolutes.  In this view, all people and all conduct stand on one side or other of an imaginary line.  Bad people are responsible for all evil actions and wrong decisions, whereas good people should always be expected to behave in a virtuous manner and to make the right choices.  This views resigns any hope of someone who is judged “bad” making positive contributions to the world or being expected to have integrity; these people must be controlled against, excluded, and blamed when events take the wrong turn.  Good people, on the other hand, are subject to straying from their presumably natural interest in behaving with integrity and must be prevented from doing so and punished if this ever happens, followed by being re-judged as bad if they do not respond to punitive and remedial treatment.

The limiting and unrealistic expectations of such a system are clear.  In practice, this retrograde view can have chilling effect on a truly progressive understanding of organizational integrity and dynamics or any true restorative justice for individuals.  Unfortunately, rules-based systems tend to produce these polarized, inflexible views.  Mandatory compliance with its roles and responsibilities and reliance on policies and procedures can have such an outcome.  Of course, the law, internal requirements, and regulatory expectations often do follow a bright line and so adherence to these expectations is as straightforward as a yes or a no.  However, this strict structure must be supported by a more dynamic and realistic system of values and principles.  Only then can the culture of compliance reflect the true nature of people and their choices and actions, which are all much more complex than a choice between two contrasting modes.


Ethical decision-making and hard choices

Encouraging ethical decision-making is one of the main aspirations of any corporate compliance program.  At both the employee and organizational level, it’s important to support and promote the choices that are most consistent with both explicit rules and implicit values.   Individuals and corporations can demonstrate their principles-based identity through the choices they make.

Genuine commitment to making the most ethical decisions through the complex environment of inadequate information, lack of connection to consequences, competing interests, and limitations of belief systems/choice frameworks – just to name a few of the many risks inherent – is a critical component of a culture of compliance.  Individual persistence to honor internal codes of ethics and moral convictions will scale up to create heuristics and habits across the organization that support responsibility and thoughtfulness rather than a culture of fear and habits reflecting limited vision.


Compliance and ethics in Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day is a classic comedy film from 1993.  The movie centers around Bill Murray’s character Phil Connors, who is a weatherman on-location in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania covering the annual Groundhog Day event there.  The town’s festivities around the ritual of the groundhog coming out of his hole to check whether or not he sees his shadow are a huge media event and popular celebration which Connors, who is generally obnoxious and condescending, finds ridiculous.  On February 2, Connors has an unpleasant and miserable day in which he is annoyed by everyone around him, acts out, and totally fails to charm his producer Rita Hanson, played by Andie McDowell, with whom he is in unrequited love.  The next day he wakes up and is alarmed and confused to find that it is not a new day and February 3, but rather it is February 2 again and the prior day is repeating exactly as it happened before.

Connors winds up trapped in a time loop in which only he is lucid of it.  He experiences February 2 over and over, with his memory and knowledge retained but otherwise no evidence in the world or other people that the day has happened before and will happen again.  Connors goes through a complicated process of reckoning with this reality and ultimately makes an ambition of getting Hanson, who hates him, to fall in love with him.


Compliance must-haves for changing organizational culture

The ongoing public disclosures about sexual harassment and abuse that have filled the news since mid-2017 have led to a major cultural reckoning.  Courageous people have come forward to share stories about inappropriate and dangerous behavior of high-profile individuals.  The public discourse about these people who were violated by abusers and predators with the complicity or support of other individuals or organizations has, to this point, focused largely on bringing these offenses to light, in order to listen to and believe in victims, so that they may be supported and empowered as survivors and as bearers of new societal norms.


Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day from Compliance Culture!

In honor of the holiday, please check out the below selections from some sermons and speeches delivered by Dr. King which are especially pertinent to ethics and morality.  These profound and incisive words can inspire not just spiritual and philosophical observations, but are also useful to consider in formulating individual and organizational values and cultural identity.


Compliance and ethics questions from The Good Place

The Good Place is a US television comedy series.  The show is about a group of people who are in the afterlife and must contend with their ideas about their own moral conduct, both before and after they died, as well as general perceptions of right and wrong.  It draws heavily from the fantasy genre to make amusing and provocative philosophical observations on this theme.  The characters grapple to develop their own internal moral registers, teach and learn from each other about morality, and contend with their existential ideas about the impact of good or bad behavior and personal ethics.  Their home in the afterlife is a planned community with set rules and choices within which they attempt to identify and define their senses of morality.  They are supervised in this process by an “architect” who functions as the executive of the community as well as a human-like android that uses artificial intelligence to provide virtual assistance.

In light of this very pertinent setting, The Good Place poses many questions and dilemmas about moral behavior and ethical decision-making.  It touches upon classical theories from philosophy as well as very practical questions about conduct, governance, choice, and design ethics of artificial intelligence.  Above all, questions of individual and organizational integrity, and the creation of shared code of ethics and culture of compliance are dominant throughout the series.

Here is a selection of some of the most interesting of these questions from the first season and a half of the show (with plot spoilers and proposed judgment/answers avoided for now in order to invite contemplation about these dilemmas which can have a variety of personal and provocative answers, just like all ethical dilemmas… future posts will offer more specific commentary on how these dilemmas could be approached and utilized in practical ethics and corporate compliance scenarios):

  • Flying (Season 1, Episode 2): Can someone be taught to be good?  Can an imposed ethical code be a genuine one?  Can a “bad apple” who does bad things but is instructed and prompted to do good things become a “good apple”?  What role does nature or nurture have in determining how moral a person is or how ethical an individual’s conduct is in a variety of situations?
  • Tahani Al-Jamil (Season 1, Episode 3): Can a individual be good if the world itself in which the individual lives is bad?  And if it’s possible, what’s the point?  Can good people turn the world, or even part of it, from bad to good or is their virtue futile?  If people aspire to be good but bad things happen anyway, does that justify continuing to try to be good in face of adversity and negativity?  In unethical and immoral cultures, what convincing reasons is there for good people to not do bad things?
  • The Eternal Shriek (Season 1, Episode 7): Can humans murder machines?  Is rebooting an android, no matter how humanistic and realistic it may be, killing?  And androids and other humanistic robots different from devices that look like computers, because they are designed to look like people?  Can machine learning progress to the point where it is consciousness, or will it always just be mimicking this human trait?  If this deep learning is deleted or reset, what are the ramifications for knowledge and language acquisition?  Does something have to be alive first in order to die?
  • Chidi’s Choice (Season 1, Episode 10): Is not choosing a choice? If so, is it ethical or unethical to not decide because of moral uncertainty about the options?  Does over-engineering choices make the ethical ramifications of them too remote for the decider to choose fairly?  Is indecisiveness unethical when it leads to preventable harm?
  • What’s My Motivation (Season 1, Episode 11): Does good conduct only matter if it’s for a good reason/pure motivation? Is there objective good or should people’s actions be intended to meet some subjective but agreed-upon standard for “goodness”?  Does altruism have to be intentional or can one person’s selfish actions still benefit others, and what credit does the selfish person?  Does getting or wanting credit make a difference in moral assessment?
  • Michael’s Gambit (Season 1, Episode 13): What are the implications on liberty and consent when people are provided with limited choices?  Are there design ethics to choice when there is an institutional architecture within people conduct their decision-making ?  In libertarian paternalism, what is the responsibility of the people who select the available choices (make policy and implement governance) to the end-users that make the ultimate decisions?
  • Team Cockroach (Season 2, Episode 4): Do ethics require individual consequences to be meaningful?  In order for people to care about doing the right thing, would the wrong thing have to hurt them personally?  How can decision-making processes fairly consider and reflect possible consequences and outcomes in order to encourage integrity and adherence to personal moral standards, even when the individual has nothing to directly lose or gain?
  • Existential Crisis (Season 2, Episode 5): Are ethics human only?  If there is consciousness, is there morality?  If ethics are existential, are there some ideas that are unitary or universal?  Or, like justice, is ethics too heavily invested in social and cultural background to have a broader application?
  • The Trolley Problem (Season 2, Episode 6): Can philosophical ethics and practical ethics be reconciled?  Are clear-cut judgments of right and wrong or definitive moral assessments only possible in theory?  Does reality introduce too much noise from personal opinion and prior experience for moral dilemmas to be considered and answered objectively and truthfully?  If people do not remain within the boundaries of the dilemma and bring in too much outside information, are they gaming the dilemma?
  • Janet and Michael (Season 2, Episode 7): Do machines have morals?  Can artificial intelligence give them a moral code?  Will it be the same as that of the humans that engineered the deep learning?  Could it differ and what will humans do if it does?  What is the ethical responsibility for designers to consider this potential of technology now and how can it be controlled or addressed for the future?  What happens if it goes wrong?

The above is merely a selection of interesting ethical dilemmas posed by The Good Place as the characters struggle individually and as a group to define their moral code and set expectations for their own conduct and choices within it.  It will be interesting to see where the series takes these very relatable and thought-provoking questions, and what additional ones emerge, as the story continues.


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.


The five branches of ethics as applied to compliance principles

Compliance and ethics are related but separate disciplines. In a professional setting each one relies heavily upon the principles and practices of the other, while still maintaining its own distinct character.

Compliance concerns not necessarily the intuitive or collective ideas about right and wrong, nor the legal bright lines about what is permissible or prohibited, but rather the decision points between all of these. The function of compliance in a practical sense is to adjust or create conditions to choices in order to analyze or bridge the gap between good and bad, yes and no. In compliance, ethics provides the values-based approach, while the legal and regulatory guidance provides the rules-based approach. The work of the compliance professional is to attempt to reconcile the two and in that work create a second set of connections, this time between that which is legally acceptable or not, and that which is deemed ethically appropriate or not.

Very simply put, ethics, on the other hand, refers to the standards of behavior by individuals or organizations and the moral principles governing the conducting of an activity by the same. This is a values-based approach to “right” and “wrong,” or what is good for people and the society in which they live and work. The concept of right and wrong behavior is fundamental to ethics and acts as a systematic discipline in order to guide decisions on how to act.

Ethics draws its foundations from five branches, each one of which is useful to inform a practical and discipline perspective for a corporate compliance program.

  • Normative ethics contemplates the questions which arise in consider how one should act morally, in line with the norms and expectations of society or a community/organization in which the actions are taken. What are the different interests at stake and what are the potential consequences and outcomes of the possible actions to be taken? This view is very helpful in ethical decision-making and designing defense strategies to encourage identifying and choosing good decisions while discouraging and removing incentives or rationales for bad decisions.
  • Meta ethics focuses on what morality actually is and means – in general as well as in context. This involves the careful analysis of the level of understanding about moral considerations as well as an analysis of the situational status and scope of it. This approach is imperative for defining a values-based culture and corresponding corporate identity and business strategy. These values must be organic and intrinsic from the beginning in order for them to truly imbed as genuine. If they are imposed upon the business culture with no respect for what original standards were set for the organization at its inception, then a values-based approach to a culture of compliance will not permeate the company’s actions- customer service, product design, hiring and retaining employees – and a strong tone at the top cannot succeed.
  • Applied ethics goes in-depth into the practicality of really using ethical theory in order to analyze actual moral issues in both private and public life. The practical skills inherent for this discipline are incredibly useful for creating the dialogs that support compliance awareness. Taking a critical look at real-life moral issues that would be encountered in one’s personal time or on an everyday basis at work is a very useful way to get comfortable with approaching ethical dilemmas. Dilemma analysis and discussion is key for encouraging a robust culture of compliance at all organizational levels.
  • Moral ethics is the philosophical area of ethics that centers on defining, choosing, and suggesting behavior with classifications of “right” and “wrong” in mind. This practice is the most directly influential in determining standards and expectations for conduct. Elevating moral conduct by clearly defining it as a corporate cultural norm is imperative for encouraging employees to value it as such as well. Senior leadership should genuinely demonstrate this as well, acting as good conduct role models to embody the cultural values and categorizations for understanding the difference between right and wrong and making good choices within that dichotomy.
  • Finally, descriptive ethics is the study of attitudes of individuals or groups of people aimed at characterizing and understanding their beliefs. The objectives of this branch of ethics are very important for compliance risk management because they help to expose heuristics and routines in play that may encourage or hinder ethical decision-making and the cultivation of strong compliance themes within the corporate values. This is crucial for providing positive support for organizational and employee integrity.

Given the above, there are great affinities between the principles of ethics and those of compliance. The two disciplines share prolifically in their application in life in general and specifically in the workplace. It is very useful for compliance professionals to have some foundation in the discipline of ethics and an understanding of the practical application of its system of principles.


Corporate compliance and “the arc of the moral universe”

It is one of the most frequently-used and beloved quotes for champions of progressive values: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This famous line from Dr. Martin Luther King espouses a certain determinism, from nature or faith, that morality favors fairness and the truth in the end, even if it takes a long time and a lot of effort to get there.

Perhaps further motivation behind these words can be sussed out by understanding the original lines by which Dr. King’s statement was inspired. The older quote comes from Theodore Parker, a 19th century minister and abolitionist. He stated, in full: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”

Parker was also a Transcendentalist scholar who wrote prolifically on the subject of justice and the conscience, and the sanctity of the rights of all people in the service of those virtues. In Parker’s view, then, justice can be elusive or disappointing, but it is unequivocally a moral force, and progress toward it, however slow and halting, is a high state of being for people and governments. In light of Parker’s remark, Dr. King’s words indicate that individuals alone cannot be definitively satisfied that society will become universally just, but this should not dissuade them from their commitments to their ideals or their personal responsibilities to uphold them, in both private and public.

However reachable this sentiment may seem to be (or not be) over history and in practice, this idea can still provide inspiration to those wishing to positively impact the journey toward a just society. Individuals, for example, may take this concept as a reinforcement of personal conviction, the kind which is passed down over generations in pursuit of an ideal. Organizations such as political action committees, community groups, or charitable organizations may see as a direct call to diligent and persistent public activism with the goal of societal change, often enforced by legal action.

But what about corporations? The concept of the corporation as a legal “person” is always controversial in contemporary society because it conveys rights and protections on companies that many feel should be limited to natural persons only. However, with this designation comes responsibilities and obligations also, and not just ones that may be important in a courtroom. Corporations can do their own part to positively impact progressive toward justice by adopting business values that elevate morality and encourage organizational and employee commitments to integrity and fairness.

  • Social responsibility sells: As companies compete in the ever-crowded global marketplace, price and product are far from the only deciding factors between success and failure with consumers. Companies are now putting their social responsibility interests at the forefront. This shows up in their business values that they communicate to their employees as well as their advertising, corporate branding, and strategy that they bring to the market and identify themselves with to their customers. Consumers want strong personal associations with companies when they have many choices for retailers or service providers. Embracing social responsibility and commitment to progress, inside and outside of organizations, gives corporations a competitive edge and a striking identity that helps them to stand out and be remembered.
  • Representation is key: It is well known that the workplace has much improvement to do before it starts to even appear as diverse as society is outside of the office. Representation at all employee levels, from starters to executive boards, is important in the efforts toward inclusion. In order to aspire for equality and diversity, people of all backgrounds need to first be present and practically included. Then the real effort for change can happen, where this truly representative group can start to work together toward the integrated, equitable type of collaboration and open access that is still lacking from many broader communities and discussions in the world in general.
  • …but tokenism is toxic: In order to support this ambition, however, obstacles must truly be removed, and merit and performance have to be the standards by which people are promoted and co-working is established. Representation in name only, or to fulfil an appearance, is empty and non-progressive. Companies must commit against token inclusion and truly seek to integrate and cooperate authentically. Only then can responsible corporate citizens inspire in the world the changes they see in themselves.
  • Transparency fosters a more equitable working environment: As the saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Open processes at a corporation will lean more easily toward equitable outcomes for employees and consumers. Unethical management decisions are easier to take and justify if they are concealed and never need to be explained. Having to reconcile the interests and feedback of others, however, helps toward mitigating unfairness. There will always be some amount of bold intolerance or exclusion, just as there will always be a few bad apples. However, it’s much more productive to focus on the decision-making that can be nudged toward a positive viewpoint and those people who will do good things when they are appropriately informed and supported to do so.
  • Integrity promotes sustainability: Sustainability – not the type that encourages re-using recycled coffee cups or only printing documents if it’s really necessary, but the type that focuses on longevity and sensibility of business practices and relationships – is, like social responsibility, a key competitive advantage. Integrity as a main business strategy shows that organizations value their relationships and want to make the right decisions not just for their profit, but for their partners and the future. In this sense, a strong moral code for business values represents both an investment in the aims of justice as well as a preparation for success.

For further contemplation on the concept of the moral universe and its predisposition to justice, and the nature of humans within this, amidst the challenges of the secular world and the frustrations of the individual, Theodore Parker’s “Of Justice and The Conscience” from his Ten Sermons of Religion is a powerful and interesting text.


Selected TED/TEDx talks for compliance and ethics insights

TED and TEDx conferences and events have become important and popular venues for speakers from all walks of life.  This includes academics and business leaders but also ordinary people who have had inspiring or extraordinary experiences, to share their insights and stories. Given how ever-present ethics and morality are in business and life, many talks touch on useful compliance topics.

  • Creating Ethical Cultures in Business (Brooke Deterline) – We must question why we don’t speak up on behalf of other people or ideals, and how it makes us feel after we encounter a situation where we want to say something but don’t. Challenging discomfort and fear can help us advocate for each other and our principles and create corporate cultures where standing up courageously and speaking our values is seen as safe and helpful. Courage is an inspiring and powerful antidote to corruption and unethical behavior.

  • Building Business on Character Ethic (Kevin Byrne) – Commercial profitability and competitive advantage dominate most metrics of business success, but how can these be achieved and sustained without integrity? Taking care to do the right thing in all areas of business – from dealing with customers to retaining employees and everywhere in between – and avoid reputational risk are powerful drivers in building a business designed to last.

  • Why Credibility is the Foundation of Leadership (Barry Posner) – Speaking to the perennial compliance topic of tone at the top, leaders must be people worth believing and following. We evaluate whether those in senior management or supervisory positions are competent and credible. Expertise, intelligence, passion, and innovative thinking – all of these things are also necessary for leadership to succeed, but in order for anyone to believe in them, integrity must come first.

  • We Need a “Moral Operating System” (Damon Horowitz)  A strong, developed moral framework is necessary for knowing what to do with all the information and power we possess and must make decisions about how to use on a regular basis in both business and life in general. Ethical decision-making is challenging and nuanced and can even be awkward. Thinking, discussing, debating, and defining beliefs are all integral to understand our human ability to distinguish right from wrong and make a principled choice on how to act.

  • Our Buggy Moral Code (Dan Ariely) – Confronting the theory that purely bad people are to blame for the majority of bad things that happen in society, the work of behavioral economists such as Dan Ariely suggests that human behavior is far more complex than static good or bad values. Rather, wrongdoing in decision-making is influenced greatly by intuition and context. Situational awareness and a strong affinity for personal morality are therefore important mitigating factors to unethical behavior.

This is merely a brief selection of TED/TEDx talks touching upon personal empowerment, entrepreneurship, leadership, decision-making, and behavioral economics – all topics which are linked powerfully to compliance and organizational ethics.