With all the attention on ethics and compliance, it is interesting to take account of the vocabulary — terms like “culture, governance, access, processes, diligence, independence, and empowerment” are all bandied about. One term that is even more critical and frequently ignored is “accountability.”
Ethics and compliance is so frequently tied to joint concepts, it is a gestalt that has little room for individual considerations or determinations. In my view, a culture of ethics and compliance can be damaged or even destroyed by the absence of accountability.
When individuals or groups inside an organization are perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be unaccountable, the damage to the organization’s culture will be significant.
There is the well-known motto – senior management engages in misconduct and mid-level management and employees get extra training. If there is a disconnect between responsibility and accountability, a company can suffer substantial harm to its culture.
The GM ignition switch scandal provides a clear example of the lack of accountability. After a comprehensive internal investigation, the Vulukas report resulted in the firing of senior lawyers, mid-level engineers and mid-level managers. No one from senior management was disciplined nor even cited for failing to oversee or monitor underlings responsible in the chain-of-command.
Talk about a recipe for disaster. The GM C-Suite is hiding behind a familiar refrain: see no evil and hear no evil. By covering their eyes and ears, they have what every senior executive ultimately relies on – lack of knowledge. That standard may work in a criminal or even civil context but it is unpersuasive in an organizational context. The question is not did they know but instead is should they have known.
If an executive fails to exercise responsibility by conducting proper oversight, the executive has failed to carry out his or her duties. In the end they must be held accountable for the failings of their underlings. That does not readily translate to every incident of misconduct, but it should apply to most situations where there is a systemic breakdown in a culture of compliance, akin to the GM safety debacle.
The problem occurs in other contexts as well. When reviewing a company’s system for enforcing its code of conduct and disciplinary system, the existence of disparities between senior managers and lower-level managers and employees can have a damaging effect on a company’s culture.
The problem of uneven discipline of similarly situated offenders in any organization is just another manifestation of the same problem of unaccountability.
We all rally around concepts of equality and fairness. While a corporation is not built on a system of democracy in the traditional sense, organizations are built around people and our societal expectations.
Managers and employees perform better when they work for an organization dedicated to a culture of ethics and compliance. Accountability is an integral part of any system devoted to ethics, compliance and in the end, fairness.
Companies that ignore the importance of accountability run the risk that they will severely damage their commitment to ethics and culture.