Key Takeaways from the Ethisphere Global Ethics Conference

This year’s Global Ethics Summit by Ethisphere was an outstanding conference. I learned quite a bit and had some fascinating conversations. Although I was one of just a few communications professionals at the event, at times I felt I was at a PR conference, as similar buzzwords and key themes were constantly surfacing:

  • The power of story
  • Transparency
  • Culture
  • Engagement
  • Building consensus
  • How do we demonstrate value?
  • Multi-modal touch points.
What CEOs Think About Ethics

The CEO panel kicked off the conference with great insight from the CEOs of Manpower Group, Schnitzer Steel and Leidos. Following are a few of the most memorable and useful insights and comments I believe are also good guides for communications professionals:

  • Jonas Prising, CEO of Manpower Group:
    • Leadership needs to be explicit about what they accept and do not accept and back up words with actions.
    • Building culture needs to focus on diversity and inclusion.
  • Roger Krone, CEO of Leidos:
    • Integrity must be a core value. We would be out of business if we lost the trust of the customer.
    • If all you care about is shareholder value, you will get the employees you deserve. You need to focus on stakeholder value. Employees and suppliers are just as important as shareholders.
    • An ethical organization can not be built with just annual mandatory training. It needs to be a daily part of the fabric of an organization.
  • Tamara Lundgren, CEO of Schnitzer Steel:
    • The foundation of maintaining trust is effective communication and regularly sharing both the good and the bad news.
    • The more corporate speak and buzzwords you use, the less authentic you are. Buzzwords hurt when you are trying to build a culture.
Harassment, Ethics and #metoo

After the CEO panel, there was an informative and lively session on Harassment, Ethics and #metoo.

It started off with some discouraging data from Ethisphere – Less than 50 percent of companies use in-person meetings to communicate fair employment practices and harassment issues. This needs to go up. I was particularly chilled about how only low it was with senior executives. Ethisphere also shared that there was a 30%+ drop in employee trust if employees are aware of harassment and appropriate action is not taken by the company.

Communications and HR pros also need to remember that a lack of complaints does not mean lack of a problem. We need to change our approach in this area from a reactive to proactive approach. This can only be done through empowerment and higher transparency.

Kathryn Ditmars, General Counsel, Americas for JLL had some of the most useful comments.

    • Change the terms to drive involvement. It is  easier for people to say ‘That was a #metoo moment’ rather than ‘That was harassment.’
    • If managers complain “I can’t have parties any more.” tell them “If you can’t have parties without harassment, then nom you can’t.” But most can.
    • Appropriate action must be taken regardless of location or level. There can be no selective enforcement. Or to put it more colorfully,  you can’t let someone pee in part of the pool. If you let it go it spreads throughout the company. 
How to handle hot-button issues

The final session of the day provided advice on how to deal with hot-button issues. Senior counsel for GE, Citi, AT&T and EY provided some great practical advice and real world examples. Some of the highlights include:

  • Alex Dimitrief, former senior executive at GE
    • You need to keep to your company values regardless of the country where you do business. Do not accept any compromise.
    • Evaluate all stakeholders before making a controversial ethics decision. Alex decided to go to Saudi Arabia after many companies and executives decided not to immediately after the million of a journalist. In the end, he decided showing support for his team there was most important. GE had been in Saudi Arabia for 60 years and wanted to be there for next 60 years. He decided the only way to help with progress is to be there and be engaged.
    • It is a fallacy to think there is a trade off between being ethical and being profitable. If your profits are gotten unethically, the house of cards will come tumbling down.
  • Ariel Meyerstein, senior vice president of corporate sustainability, Citi
    • How to deal with interest pressure – In the US today there is more pressure on companies to have position on issues they don’t normally have position on or would not have had in the past – climate change, LGBTQ, immigration, firearms. When determining if you want to take a position, only chime in on those issues that align with your company policy.  It is good to take position as long as agree with company values.
  • David Huntley, Chief Compliance Officer, AT&T
    • When discussing ethics and value, it is easy to start at top, but communicators and businesses need to make sure it resonates with front line employee. Encourage employees to think of the company as their own mom and pop business.
  • Kris Cury, Partner @ EY
    • Advice for Healthcare companies – Pharmaceutical and healthcare companies often have a hard time engaging on problematic issues and in certain markets. When making the ethics call, Kris tends to weigh the human good, the direct benefit of engaging and if it will help someone achieve a better lifestyle.
    • Life Sciences companies are feeling compliance fatigue. We can’t audit our way to compliance and ethical behavior. Rather companies need to invest in ongoing training and communications.
    • If you want to really engage employees and get them to live the core values, you need to stop discussing rules, compliance and governance. You need to rebrand it as integrity and explain the ethics and compliance is doing what you love to do with integrity.

For additional content on the Global Ethics Summit, check out my earlier post on best practices for communicators, here and my interview with Erica Salmon Byrne.

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Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA

Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a senior strategic communications professional. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA. drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of EthicalVoices.com
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