Do you build an ethical reputation with enforcement?

As the debate about guidelines or a code of conduct for bloggers runs on, it seems some organisations believe the only way to ensure they have an ethical reputation is by heavy enforcement of their own codes.

Wal-Mart features in the New York Times (subscription) with a strange story about its team of former CIA/FBI officials who spy on  employees:

Wal-Mart, renowned to outsiders for its elbows-out business tactics, is known internally for its bare-knuckled no-expense-spared investigations of employees who break its ironclad ethics rules.

A main focus seems to be “inappropriate relations” between employees and accepting gifts from suppliers.   Of course, if you don’t break the rules, you can’t get into trouble – but that argument supports more surveillance of an innocent minority not trust.

claims over 75 tech firms have been caught up in ethical issues – some of which have had major impact on corporate reputations.  Their responses seem to involve appointing ethics and compliance officers and hiring private investigators.

I’m not excusing law breaking – or defying corporate codes (although many of them are of questionable value), but don’t believe you can create an ethical culture and build an ethical reputation on the basis of spying and punishment.  As with respectful blogging – self-control is what is really required

commenting on the Wal-Mart case says: “The goal of secrecy is stupid.” and highlights the corporate paranoia over “secrets” that aren’t worth protecting.

Viewing all employees as possible “miscreants” who need to be watched at every turn is also stupid.  Indeed, most of the major ethical issues seem to start, or be condoned, from the top – so why pick on the “little people”?

I cannot believe that anyone would want to work for a company that monitors their every activity – just in case they do something wrong.  How could you practice good, ethical public relations in such an environment?  Such authoritarian management cannot build a good reputation.   cites critics of Wal-Mart:

Wal-Mart acts like we’re possibly violent or criminal, but we’re only normal citizens working for a better world. We’re exercising our democratic rights out in the open, they are the shadowy characters here.” 

It seems bizarre that corporate power is being mis-used in this way, when there has never been wider recognition of the value of engaging employees and harnessing the enthusiasm of all publics and stakeholders by building positive relationships.

I’d like to think we are witnessing some last-gasp practices of die-hard command and control managers, and that there is a new dawn on the horizon where organisations will value the rights of customers, employees, communities, the media.

Rather than tighter control from the top, I believe organisations need (as advocates) real values centred around genuinely-held ethical principles.  The only way to deliver an ethical reputation is in every little thought, word and deed – and that cannot possibly be achieved by fear and enforcement.

5 thoughts on “Do you build an ethical reputation with enforcement?

  1. Very interesting NYT piece. I signed up for news/feature alerts. It’s good to bring in some examples of the practice that goes on in other countries as a contrast in our studies

  2. Would I be right in thinking there are no windows in Walmart’s Head Office?
    We hear these grim tales of US corporatism over here…
    I agree ith your point of course. In fact I think you hve it worse than we do. There a few companies over here who are faily notorious for being not very ethical and for being bad employers.
    But they are mainly American.

  3. What a great image of Walmart having no windows – they at least have the blinds drawn down. I am not based in the US, but in UK, where we don’t seem to be as bad as the States – we do have a very agressive media that aren’t all pro-corporates. Where are you based?

  4. Oh, the Walmart story is true. I was phrasing it politely in the belief you were American. I’m a Brummie I’m afraid.

  5. Nothing wrong with being a Brummie – my best friend is originally from Birmingham, I studies at B’ham Uni, and I subsequently worked for Peugeot in an office at the airport. So I’m a fan of the city – not so sure about the accent though!!

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