How to Survive an Ethics Crisis

Ethics consultants are not hired when everything is hunky dory. They're different, and often more severe, than other corporate crises. An ethics crisis is about who you are as an organization and not just about specific actions that have gone wrong. But you can limit their damage.

It is is one in which an organization is judged to have done something wrong due to poor ethics. Many situations that start out as a business crises—whether it is the BP oil spill or the GM ignition switch—escalate into ethics crises. What causes this shift often is an unwillingness to accept responsibility for the wrong actions. The public will judge this unwillingness as a sign of poor ethics. Most organizations eventually figure out that they won’t escape responsibility by denying it. But by then their credibility is damaged.

Ethics crises are almost unavoidable for the simple reason that organizations are made up of people. Some of them will do unethical things in the organization’s name, which have a significant impact. The following steps will help you limit their damage.

“The biggest mistake is not recognizing that it is an ethics crisis.”

1. Recognize that it is an ethics crisis. The biggest mistake is not recognizing that it is an ethics crisis. Executives tend to overestimate the protection offered by the organization’s reputation and its legal defenses. And they often reason that the organization will not be held accountable for what someone did contrary to the organization’s direction or policy. This is untrue. The sooner you own any crisis, the less newsworthy it is. Early acknowledgment of an ethics crisis is particularly effective in showing that the wrong action is not characteristic of the organization.

2. Investigate quickly, objectively and thoroughly. An investigation into an ethics crisis cannot follow the usual internal investigation protocol since those running the investigation may be implicated in the crisis or in covering it up. You need an independent investigation to determine what happened, who did what and who knew about it. Even if you conduct the investigation under legal privilege, anticipate that the investigation may become public and you may eventually be required to share the investigation with regulatory or enforcement authorities.

3. Consider the impact on your employees. A big risk in an ethics crisis is that your own employees will conclude that unethical conduct is the norm in the organization or at its highest levels, and adjust their behavior accordingly. In an ethics crisis, employees often learn about the crisis from the media. Organizations tend not to communicate openly with their employees about such matters, leaving employees to believe what others are saying. You risk a negative shift in corporate culture unless you credibly communicate the organization’s position to its employees.

4. Assume that the government will become involved. When an organization does something viewed as unethical, the public wants someone to do something about it. And that someone is likely to be “the government.” Most organizations are open to some level of government oversight. When the government comes knocking, you can expect to hand over most everything you know about the crisis. Why? Even though some of the material may be covered by legal privilege, the government will find you uncooperative if you “hide” information. Your reasoning about the crisis needs be premised on when the government finds out rather than whether the government finds out.

5. Find the root cause. It is not enough to know what happened; you need to know why it happened. Most organizations can survive a single ethics crisis. But if the same conduct is repeated, even if by different individuals, this will fix the negative impression of the organization in cement. Organizations tend to want to keep changes to a minimum, as big changes seem to be a further admission of culpability. But you need to be sure that you have changed personnel and systems sufficiently that the same conduct does not recur.

These steps will not only help an organization weather an ethics crisis, they will help it do so with its reputation intact.


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