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Benchmark Ethics: Time for Your Corporate Ethics Audit?

If ethics — doing the right thing — really matters in business and technology today, isn’t it time to bring in the “CPEs” (Certified Public Ethicists) for an audit so we can get a clear, objective picture of how we are doing on the ethical bottom line? Well, I don’t think there exists a profession of such “CPEs” and I’m not sure it would be good if there was. I do admire the efforts of the Ethics Officer Association (www.EOA.org), founded in 1992, to organize and improve the field, I should say.

But too much of what passes for business ethics today is narrowly-focused on damage-control of crisis cases and neglects the broader, deeper mission, culture, and values which often give rise to such dilemmas (an Ethics Officer Association member survey supports my point: their time and effort tends to focus on cases of apparent conflict of interest, sexual harassment, etc.). And too much of contemporary business ethics continues to be warmed-over traditional moral philosophy which might be great for ivory tower debates but is radically out of touch with the experience and thinking of real world people.

The term “audit” also evokes some fear and negative reactions. Who of us has a positive reaction when informed that our tax return will be audited? So maybe we should call this an “ethics inventory” or “ethics assessment.” But we shouldn’t forget that “audit” (related to “auditory,” “audible,” and “auditing a class”) basically means “listening.” And that is what I am proposing: it is time not just to have a financial audit to determine our financial health and if we are really in the black. It is time to have an ethics audit to determine our ethical health and see if we are in the “blue” (the right) as Don Tapscott calls it.

We are just at the pioneering stages of figuring out how to do an ethics audit. One temptation will be to rely on a quantitative method to analyze a phenomenon that has inextricable qualitative and subjective elements. Despite the complexity of the challenge, however, we need not, and must not, be deterred from addressing it.. What would an ethics audit (or assessment) look and listen for? How would it proceed?

The method would need to include a careful study of (a) internal company documents (values and ethics statements, ethics committee minutes, etc.), (b) important external studies and reports on the company, (c) interviews of leaders and representative employees, customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders, and (d) selected, targeted questionnaires, surveys, and focus group discussions.

The subject of the assessment would focus on questions such as:
(1) Are the company’s core mission and values and its ethical guidelines and decision-making process clearly-articulated and coherent? What are they?
(2) How well do leaders and managers know and understand the ethical position and process of the company?
(3) How well do employees know and understand the ethical position and process of the company? What is done to educate them in company ethics?
(4) How well do the company’s recruitment, hiring, review, compensation, and promotion
processes align with its avowed ethical values? Is ethical behavior rewarded and unethical behavior sanctioned or punished?
(5) What is on the list of ethical dilemmas and challenges the company has faced during the past two years? What caused them? How were they resolved?
(6) What do managers and employees regard as the most important ethical challenges they face, or may face, in their jobs?
(7) What are the major ethical issues faced by companies in similar business environments? What can be learned from these experiences?
(8) What is the company’s ethical reputation among its employees? Among others with whom it has significant relationships and responsibilities (customers, investors, suppliers, family relatives of employees, journalists, et al)?

The goal of the assessment would be to provide a clear answer to questions such as (a) What are the current ethical strengths and weaknesses of the company as indicated by this audit? And (b) What are the most significant steps the company could or should take in the next two years to strengthen its ethical culture and performance?

I would love to hear from you about any experiences you have had with anything like an “ethics audit” where you have worked. And if you are interested in exploring the possibility of IBTE helping you carry out an ethics assessment at your workplace, drop me an email and we’ll talk.

David W. Gill was co-founder of IBTE and author of Benchmark Ethics, a regular article in the first 32 issues of Ethix. After eight years of writing, speaking, teaching, and consulting in the Bay Area of California, he joined the faculty of Gordon-Conwell Theological Center (South Hampton, Mass.) in 2010, where he is also Director of the Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace.

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