The Trouble With Business Ethics

Companies are increasingly emphasizing ethics, but a recent case at Wal-Mart shows how problematic such policies can be for employees

In the post-Enron, post-WorldCom, post-Tyco era, ethics has become one of the hottest topics in the business world. Business schools have entire courses dedicated to the topic. Companies have instituted more rigorous ethics policies and set up global ethics offices. One of the fastest-growing employment categories is chief ethics officer, as evidenced by the creation of that post at the New York Stock Exchange (NYX), Nortel Networks (NT), Marsh & McLennan (MMC), and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ).

But a recent case at Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) shows how difficult it can be to push "ethics" in the corporate world. A few months after going through a new employee training session with a heavy emphasis on ethics, Chalace Epley Lowry acted on the guidance to report any activity that seemed the least bit suspicious. Lowry told the company's ethics office about what she thought could be a case of insider trading by one of her supervisors, Mona Williams, vice-president of corporate communications.

The company determined that Williams had done nothing wrong. But Lowry's identity was revealed to Williams, leading Lowry to conclude that she could no longer work in the department. Now she's looking for another job, but there's no guarantee she'll get one at Wal-Mart. "I acted in good faith, just pointing out that there might have been some wrongdoing," says Lowry. "But it was really disheartening to see how it was handled." (See, 6/12/07, "Wal-Mart's Latest Ethics Controversy")

The Dangers of Whistleblowing

Lowry's case, unfortunately, is representative of exactly how ethics complaints and whistleblowers are handled at many corporations. "Most employees are reluctant to make any complaints for fear that they will either lose their job or get redirected into another position," says Jim Fisher, Shaughnessy fellow at the Emerson Center for Business Ethics at St. Louis University. "People who go into a situation naively thinking that they are taking care of a problem often find that it doesn't turn out that way. In fact, 95% of the time, whistleblowers lose their jobs."

The emphasis on ethics is hard to miss. Many of the companies leading the way are those that have been embroiled in scandals in the past. For instance, CA (CA), the former scandal-tainted Computer Associates, two years ago had hired Patrick Gnazzo, a former chief trial attorney for the U.S. Navy. And former Securities & Exchange Commission Chairman Richard Breeden, who was first hired to be an outside monitor of accounting firm KPMG moved into a similar role at Hollinger International (HLR), where Conrad Black stirred up trouble and ultimately a lawsuit.

Eric Dinallo and Beth Golden, alumni of former New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's office, were hired at Morgan Stanley (MS) and Bear Stearns (BSC), respectively (see, 2/13/06, "The New Ethics Enforcers").

Wal-Mart itself set up its global ethics office in 2004 and prides itself on having one of the strictest ethics codes in the industry. Its employees aren't allowed to accept even a drink from their suppliers.

Pressures on Family Life

Still, strict ethics codes can be a catch-22 for workers. "Employees who read codes of conduct have an obligation to report misconduct whether big or small," says Mark Schwartz, assistant professor of corporate governance, law & ethics at Atkinson's School of Administrative Studies at York University. "However, if you do report violations there are serious consequences."

The most famous American whistleblower, Jeffrey Wigand, had to fight a smear campaign by the company, and lawsuits after he chose to go on national television to expose how Brown & Williamson Tobacco was hiding research on the highly addictive nature of tobacco. In the days after that, Wigand lost his privacy and the intense scrutiny and pressure wrecked his marriage and family.

That could be the reason why many employees turn a blind eye to violations. A recent survey conducted by LRN, an ethics research and consulting firm, found that 73% of full-time American employees reported encountering ethical lapses on the job. However, the survey also found that of that 73%, only "one in three, or 36%, said that they have reported an incident they believed to be unethical or questionable to management." Most, or 58%, of these respondents said they didn't report it because they were not directly involved in an incident. Fourteen percent said they lacked confidence in how their employer would handle it.

Send a Message to Employees

Some employees would rather leave a company than report ethical lapses, points out Lindsay Thompson, assistant professor of leadership ethics at the Carey Business School at Johns Hopkins University. "Students who take the course sometimes find ethical issues that come to consciousness during class, and they change their jobs because they are certain that they will not get support from their employers," says Thompson.

Still in some cases, companies that have failed a government investigation might be required by law to beef up ethics and will transform themselves on paper. "In fact, a vast majority of companies don't take ethics seriously. Shoring up ethics is part of risk management, or an insurance policy," says Schwartz of York University. But there are companies that really care and want to send a strong message to employees and to investors. For instance, after the Dennis Kozlowski excesses at Tyco International (TYC), the company's new CEO, Edward Breen, effectively fired the entire board of directors, replacing them with more independent members.

Boeing (BA) also tightened its ethics rules, after the ouster of CEO Phil Condit for misconduct. The test of how it would apply those rules came less than two years later. A Boeing employee saw possible ethics lapses in new CEO Harry Stonecipher's amorous e-mail exchanges with a female executive. Despite the possibility of being fired, the anonymous employee reported it to the board of directors. Stonecipher lost his job in the days following that, and the board of directors clearly followed the guidelines of its post-Condit code of ethics. "It's not an employee's place to determine the significance of an ethics violation, and in this case, the board really stood up to their principles," says Schwartz.

Protecting Whistleblowers

Ethics experts are united in their view that that any company that takes its ethics seriously has the obligation to protect the identity of whistleblowers. "Some companies think they are set up to protect whistleblowers—but then you have to rely on the leadership and character of individual managers and business units to implement them," says Thompson of Johns Hopkins.

In Lowry's case, Wal-Mart says that she received anonymity and confidentiality in the Ethics Office complaint process. The company says in a statement: "It was through the subsequent 'open door' process that Lowry granted permission to her supervisor to tell Williams since Lowry accessed a document in Williams' e-mail." However, Lowry says that she was never told that she had the choice not to grant permission to reveal her identity to Williams.

After she requested a transfer, Lowry moved to a temporary position at Wal-Mart. "All I want is another job," she says. "I've been made to feel like I'd done something wrong. But nothing's been done to those who violated Wal-Mart's confidentiality policy. They're not worried about whether they will have a job, come tomorrow."

Business Exchange related topics:Business EthicsWal-MartCorporate Social Responsibility

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