Harriet Tubman And Navigating To Become An Ethical Company

by Thomas Fox

Harriet TubmanMarch 10th was the 101st anniversary of the death of Harriet Tubman. She was one of the greatest conductors on the Underground Railroad, which took slaves out of the old south and up to freedom in the north and into Canada. I read about her as a child and her story always moved me. The one thing I remembered is that when traveling at night in the pitched darkness, she would feel for the moss growing on trees so that she would always know which way to travel. Moss grows on the north side of a tree so she would always be able to move her way north and to freedom for those she helped escape.

I thought about Harriet Tubman and her story of how she could determine which way to travel in pitch darkness when I recently read an article in the Ethisphere Magazine, entitled “Ethics By Example”, by Gary E. McCullough. In his article he gave some specific steps that a company can engage in to help foster and create an ethical culture which he has learned over the past 25 years from working for companies as varied as Proctor and Gamble, Career Education Company and serving as an infantry officer in the US Army. 

1.    Implement structure and clear expectations.

McCullough suggests that you should create a mechanism that allows employees to address issues. In doing so, you should also be able to demonstrate both senior management and the company’s commitment to ethics and compliance. He recommends the following steps:

  • Set clear policies and expectations through your vision statement;
  • There must be strong education and training programs;
  • Metrics and measurement systems are a must;
  • A visible compliance structure within your company;
  • A confidential helpline for reporting issues with a stout no retaliation policy; and
  • A method to investigate and resolve complaints. 

2.    Ignoring infractions is not an option.

McCullough recognizes that company leaders face ongoing struggles to balance being too harsh or too lenient. If the former occurs, a leader can run the risk of demoralizing his team. If it is the latter, a leader can simply be run over by his or her troops. But a company leader must address infractions of your internal Code of Conduct, or other similar policies, or no employee will take it seriously. 

3.    Make ruthless decisions, but execute them with compassion. 

Leaders have to make tough decisions. McCullough counsels that no matter how difficult a decision might be, it should be delivered with compassion. In other words, no termination communicated by email. Tell people in person and then give them the assistance to help moving forward. 

4.    Focus on the work. 

Channeling his inner Paul McNulty (he of McNulty’s Maxims), McCullough intones that the most critical thing is what you do after a problem arises. As McNulty might say, “What did you do after you found out about it?” Do not defend your past practices or say that everyone else does it but move forward to remediate the situation, fulfill your obligations and move forward. In the world of Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) prosecution, it is clear from 2013 corporate enforcement actions that a company should remediate during the pendency of any FCPA investigation or enforcement action. Such remediation will go a long way in reducing the overall penalty, enhancing your credibility with the Department of Justice (DOJ) and helping to avoid the appointment of a corporate monitor.

5.    Be in alignment with your Board. 

McCullough believes that Boards share ownership of a company’s compliance function with the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), senior management and the compliance function. As such the best accomplishments in compliance comes when the Board, or a committee thereof, can bring a sustained outside perspective, methods and best practices to a company’s overall compliance regime.

6.    Instill it in the culture.   

I once explained a CEO’s role in compliance to a company executive and as I was going through various strategies, he looked at me and said, “You want me to be the ambassador for compliance.” I said that was exactly what I wanted him to do and it was the best description I have ever heard of what both McCullough and I believe a CEO can bring to the table. McCullough writes, “leaders must model the behavior expected from others. And when engaging with individuals, never let an opportunity pass to remind them of the company’s obligations to its stakeholders to always “do the right thing””. I could not have said it better myself.

McCullough’s points, while general in nature, are a good starting point for any compliance practitioner to review the overall nature of a company’s ethical and compliance health. For the compliance practitioner it provides some general, yet important points that they can discuss with a CEO or senior management about the company’s ethical direction. Much like Harriet Tubman’s ability to continue to move north on the Underground Railroad in pitch darkness, these guideposts will help your compliance program to move forward.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Thomas Fox, Compliance Evangelist | Attorney Advertising

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Thomas Fox

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