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Saddled with social responsibility?

Beware of superficial spin

October 5, 2012
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Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series on antidotes to potentially devastating ethical collapses. To read part one, click here


 

More than likely, if you find yourself in front of a board, it probably is not for a good reason. Stay focused, present the facts and only the facts, and concentrate on the business implications of the circumstances. Always remember, directors can only act, if they decide to act, on the information presented to them.

Antidotes to a weak board 1

1. Get information from employees. Employees closest to a safety or health ethical infraction usually know ethical situations well in advance of anyone in management. It behooves an organization to have well-known mechanisms in place that allow employees to raise an ethical issue without fear of retaliation before it is anonymously posted on a blog. Don’t ignore employee concerns or questions, because by the time an employee has mustered the courage to say something, the ethical situation may be on its way to causing severe harm.

2. Take a stroll. Although some directors get out and walk around with the folks, most will not. If you have the occasion to meet a director while he/she is walking around or during lunch or breaks, take the opportunity to inform him/her of safety and health matters you are dealing with. Remember, stick to the facts, as you know them.

Conflicts

Jennings defines the underlying theme of conflict of interest as “an individual playing two roles, and his/her role in one regard has interests that are at odds with his/her role in another.”2 There have been so many instances of publicized conflict of interest over the past ten years that one has to wonder if the bandwidth for what is not a conflict has grown.  An arena that can breed conflicts of interests in the safety and health venue occurs when an external firm is hired not only to perform third-party EHS audits, but also provide consulting services. As one of Jennings’ examples reveals, human nature does not change because the external firm wills it so.

Antidotes of conflicts 3

1. Believe in conflicts of interest. Conflicts do happen at all levels of the organization for a variety of reasons from small favors, gifts, trinkets to insider trading. 

2. Establish definitive conflicts policies and enforce the rules. Most companies have a conflict of interest policy. Read it and recognize when you may be drawn into a conflict. If your company does not have a policy, ask why not?

3. Delineate what belongs to the company and what belongs to the customer. Never the twain shall meet. Safety and health professionals who interact with customers must keep this delineation front and center whenever offering advice to customers.

4. Keep it simple! Remember, there are only two ways to manage a conflict — get rid of it or disclose it. Don’t rationalize away a conflict.

Innovation like no other

Do you work for an organization full of wizards and hubris? Have you ever been in a conversation where a hypothetical was raised on whether to “fully” comply with OSHA?  Does management signal an attitude of superiority? If so, you may be working in an organization that believes it is so far above its competition that it is entitled to ignore the rules.4

Antidotes to innovation like no other 5

1. Recognize limits on ability and that truth cannot be managed. Recognize when attempts are made to not follow the rules. Often the person(s) not following the rules likely believes the rules do not apply to them. How many times have you seen spin masters try to manage the truth and failed miserably?

2. Resilience to pressure. All of us have experienced managerial pressure to achieve a goal. The primary issue of this antidote centers on whether we have crossed ethical or legal boundaries to accomplish the goal and at what cost. Jennings notes, studies have shown individuals under pressure will not only do as told but also remain silent about what is happening. Another resilience to pressure involves resisting group pressure in decision-making known as “groupthink.”

Goodness in some areas atones for evil in others

Of the firms Jennings researched for her book, essentially all of them were immersed in all of these topics in one fashion or another. According to Jennings, much of this obsessive behavior is due to 1) ego with a craving for the spotlight; 2) drumming up new customers and retaining current ones; 3) liberal arts professors who taught ethics through the logic of capitalism being inherently evil in the sixties when many current executives were earning their MBAs; and 4) dedication to social responsibility became the penance for ethical missteps in accounting, financial reporting, use of corporate assets — The Perfect Balance.6

Antidotes to goodness in some areas atones for evil in others 7

1. A significant number of companies with social responsibility activities park them in the EHS function, where too often EHS professionals spend an inordinate amount of time on activities that add little value to the corporate bottom-line. Jennings points out, “The lines of virtue become muddled as managers mix social responsibility with virtue and finances.” “In short, managers and employees caught up in the good of other organizations and causes may not be thinking deeply enough about their own company’s needs, goals, and strategic visions.”8 

2. Explore the depths and interconnection of social responsibility and community involvement. Jennings cautions companies on the interconnections between managers and employees to the charities and causes supported in the name of social responsibility.  How much time do employees devote to volunteer work and how is this measured in performance evaluations? Are employees pressured to “volunteer?”

3. Be skeptical; be very skeptical of philanthropy and social responsibility. Since many EHS professionals are saddled with social responsibility activities, be skeptical of too much fanfare being made of these activities. Jennings posits over-emphasizing social responsibility activities may be cover for a troubled soul and even more troubled books.9

These seven signs offer a perspective on viewing our organizations in an ethical context, hopefully prior to an impending ethical safety and health collapse.

 

References

 1 Jennings, M.M. The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse – How to Spot Moral Meltdowns in Companies…Before It’s Too Late. St. Martin Press. New York, NY. pp 176

2 ibid pp 178

3 ibid pp 202

4 ibid pp 204

5 ibid pp 236

6 ibid pp247-250

7 ibid pp 257

8 ibid 251 & 252

9 ibd pp 257

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