Several years ago, I enjoyed a fascinating conversation with a local director of corporate compliance. She was sharing the development of a new ethics program that was … well, it wasn’t about ethics. It was about compliance. And there’s a world of difference between the two, although my friendly interlocutor was flummoxed by the very prospect.
She did something that happens too often in corporate boardrooms, manager’s offices and human-resource departments across the country: She assumed that ethics and compliance represent fundamentally interchangeable concepts.
In a purely academic sense, ethics is that branch of philosophical theories of value that grapples with making value-laden choices under the color of justice. The twin sister of ethics is aesthetics, with its emphasis on beauty. The discipline of ethics isn’t about arriving at the right conclusion, but about thinking about the subject in a comprehensive and rational manner.
Compliance, by contrast, is no more and no less than a system of enforced behaviors that cohere with some published set of objective and well-known norms. Whether my driving 56 mph in a 55 zone under the noon-day sun on a deserted road is acceptable is unlikely to be an ethical question, but it’s absolutely a compliance question.
Business leaders can and should proumgate codes of compliance. These documents instruct employees what to do (or what to avoid) based on some external standard. Obeying the law or regulations or following the directives of a professional licensing board, all fall under the compliance bucket. If you fail to comply, there is a penalty attached.
Business leaders have no grounds issuing codes of ethics. First, a person’s moral framework cannot be dictated by an employer. The boss cannot tell a person who believes that God determines moral behavior, that he must now become a secular consequentialist. Second, there are several different approaches to ethics that are based in different understandings of moral theory. An ethics that focuses on doing one’s duty is methodologically inconsistent with an ethics that emphasizes the preservation of relationships, for example.
A prudent company will establish a series of behaviors that employees must follow, or must avoid. These will be encapsulated in a code of conduct. But these same companies will avoid using the word “ethics” as a substitue for compliance.
There is ample room in today’s business world for ethics training. These sessions don’t tell a person what to do or what to avoid doing, but instead they provide a decision-making framework to help people make real and informed choices among competing permissible ends. Conflating ethics and compliance with slogans like “We do the right thing!” merely sends the message that the company values obedience over prudence.
By all means — write that code of compliance. But call it what it is, and if you want to promote an ethics program, emphasize choices and not regulations. After all, if ethics and compliance were synonyms we wouldn’t need two separate words for the concept!