insight magazine

Ethics Engaged | Spring 2018

The Golden Rules of Ethics

Here is how to ensure you are thinking and acting ethically in the business world.
Elizabeth Pittelkow Kittner Head of Finance, International Legal Technology Association


Take a minute to consider all the ways you interact in the business world. Sometimes you may only interact with documents and transactions, and sometimes you will have to interact with people. For many of us, we must manage staff, report to supervisors, work with vendors, and serve our clients. So how do we ensure that our interactions are always ethical? Trust.

The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that trust in the U.S. has suffered the survey’s largest-ever-recorded drop, placing trust among the informed public below that of Russia and South Africa. When you consider the foundation of our profession is built on trust and integrity, we must ask if we are doing our part to build and protect trust.

People are watching us all the time, even if we are unaware of it. If someone drops money on the ground, and you pick it up and keep it instead of giving it to the person that dropped it, someone will probably see you, and it may be someone you interact with personally or professionally. If we are told confidential information and then tell others, we break trust. Even the people we share the information with will learn that we cannot keep confidential information private. Think of the damage this behavior can cause.

Whenever I think about interacting with people, I think about the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Many of us operate with this rule in mind, but how do we know what we would like done unto us is what others want done unto them. I propose an evolved golden rule: Do unto others as they would like done unto them. How do you know what they would like done unto them? The best way is to ask.

However, do you know of the five other “goldens” that can guide your ethical behavior? The book, “Among Cultures: The Challenge of Communication” by Bradford J. Hall describes them — and I offer a practical example in the event your coworker is a fraudster:

Golden Purse: Hall describes this concept as, “The one who has the gold makes the rules.” By this concept, you would likely do whatever your board of directors wants since they have the power, they control the money, and you want to keep them happy.

Golden Consequence: Also known as utilitarianism, this principle aims to maximize the good for the most people while minimizing the bad for the most people. By this principle, you would tell someone in senior management about the fraudster, so it can be handled through proper procedures because it will do the most good and least bad for the most people.

Golden Law: This concept says there is a clear right and wrong that does not change by circumstance. In practice, you would do what you feel is right regardless of any other factors, including benefits or consequences, which likely means reporting the fraudster to management and whoever can help.

Golden Mean: Attributed to Aristotle, this “golden” expresses that the best answer exists between two extremes of a situation. This principle takes a “meet me in the middle” approach, meaning you might look to find the middle ground between (a) ignoring the fraud and continuing business as usual and (b) quitting as to not be around the fraudster. An answer could be anonymously reporting the fraud to management and then letting them take care of it.

Golden Public: By this concept, you should only act in a way that you are comfortable explaining to your peers or the public. What would the public want? The public probably wants you to report the fraudster and to tell them that it happened.

While the outcomes are similar for several of the “goldens,” there are different “right” answers that can apply to each of them, and while you may lean toward one “golden” most often, you can still apply others when an ethical situation warrants a different approach.

Of course, one of our responsibilities is aligning ourselves with ethical people and employers in the first place. If you are interviewing for a new position, there are several questions you can, and should, ask to learn about a company’s ethics. The following are recommended in Financial Management Magazine’s “7 Ethics Questions Finance Professionals Should Ask Prospective Employers”:

• How do you assess your culture or values, and how do you assess the extent the culture and values are embedded?

• What training do you offer in this area?

• What routes do you have for escalating any ethical concerns? Do you have “speak up” procedures and, if so, how are they managed?

• How is individual performance assessed in relation to the desired and/or stated behaviors?

• What action do you take against staff members who breach company policies or are found to have breached any regulations?

• Have you identified any areas of concern in staff engagement surveys or customer satisfaction surveys, and how are they being dealt with?

• Would the organization welcome appropriate challenge in regard to issues of integrity?

Within your own company, promoting the company culture and inspiring ethical interpersonal relationships should be top priorities. I suggest creating opportunities for teams to work on effective written and verbal communication skills, promoting teamwork and collaboration, and escalating issues as soon as they arise, while also setting a no retaliation policy. You have a responsibility to foster an environment that protects employees and the public and stamps out fraud and collusion.

According to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners’ 2016 Global Fraud Survey, “nearly half of the cases in our study involved multiple perpetrators colluding with one another to commit fraud, and the greater the number of fraudsters involved, the higher losses tended to be.”

Organizations need to make it clear that fraudsters will be prosecuted to demonstrate that fraud and unethical behavior will not be tolerated. Establishing cultures of high integrity and accountability, backed by written codes of ethics, and upheld by internal and external audits sets us on a path to rebuilding and sustaining trust and integrity in our business world.

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