Why You Should Act Quickly and Decisively on Even Small Ethics Concerns – Mark Cautela

Joining me on this week’s episode is Mark Cautela. Mark is a well-rounded communication professional with more than 20 years of experience between agency and in-house roles across higher ed, retail, high tech and biotech. Currently he is the Head of Communications for Harvard Business School.

Mark discusses a number of important ethics topics including:

Why don’t you tell us a little bit more about yourself and your career?

It started with a sports media focus. When I was in college, that’s what I wanted to do, and I transitioned that to a role at ESPN. Now I’m here in higher ed communications, so quite a jump from where I started to where I ended up.

But if you look at my career over the years, is as I transitioned industries or roles, I always tried to take something from the role I was leaving and use that going forward in my career. I started out in television production, and then spent some time in television advertising. I actually worked in financial services for a little while there too, when the dot-com bust happened, and then 9/11.

I decided that what I really enjoyed was a combination of journalism, but also working with people in a marketing and business role, and helping companies achieve their goals.

I found that with PR and I really found the career that I wanted to go into. A lot of people start up with the agency life, and that’s great for a lot of folks who really enjoy the different clients every day and the changing industries, but I really want to get embedded with a company, to learn that company’s culture, to help talk about their brand, to maybe focus on one industry. And that’s what I did with Staples, starting with an internal role. That evolved and defined what I’ve really come to find as my niche as a corporate communications person.

At Staples, I started in a sort of PR role and internal communications role, absorbed social media along the way, and went through some big changes there when the company was bought. I gained some great experience with taking a company private and what that entailed. And all of those experiences set me up for the role I’m in now, which I really enjoy, which is Harvard Business School.

As an internal person in higher education, one of the challenges I’ve found is a lot of the communicators might have been there 30 years and really only do one thing, PR. HBS has been pretty progressive in trying to remold the team over the years, and so my role is unique to higher ed from what I’m finding. It is what I’d call corporate communications for higher ed, so school communications, internal communications, content, and social media, which is rare for a higher education institution, and I really enjoy that.

I’ll be honest, one of the things I love the most about Harvard is it’s the big brand leader.

So coming from Staples, where we had to compete with places like Walmart, Target, and Amazon for that brand recognition, when you’re at HBS, you’re the brand leader. That comes with its own challenges in terms of every story that someone’s writing, they call us because they know if they have a chance to add HBS to the story it’s going to help with their readers and their clicks. It’s been a great challenge, and I really enjoyed where I’ve been last year and the journey to get here.

Thinking about the span of your career, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?

When I thought about this, there were certainly things I could have called out from my Staples days. We went through many of the same challenges that people from Starbucks had gone through in terms of people wanting to carry firearms in the stores, dealing with people who wanted to use the restrooms, and were they going to be same-sex restrooms or gender-neutral restrooms. But two things that stood out.

One was when I was a junior person working for a company, I was asked to fudge numbers when it came to submitting for an award.

It sounds like a small thing, but it had a trickle-down effect. If we were to get this award based on these false numbers, that gives a false sense of who this company or client really was. Customers who would potentially use that company or client would then be putting their trust in them based on a lie, if you will.

I really struggled with this for a long time. I had to go back and forth and say is this right? Do we want to do this? Is this the kind of company we want to be that falsifies our records? This was a long time ago, before a lot of the scrutiny that has come on companies now for malfeasance and financial malpractice, but back then it was still something I had to deal with.

And the challenge was, as a more junior person, how do you stand up to a someone who asks you to do something that is outside of your comfort zone, and makes you feel unethical. I really struggled with what to do and went back and forth. I tried to nudge them slowly by saying, “I don’t think this is quite right, and have we thought about these ramifications? And what about this?”

Ultimately, we ended up not submitting, which made me feel good, but the fact that I was even asked to do it and had to deal with it was something that really stuck with me for a while, and ultimately made me decide to leave that company and that situation.

You said you were being asked to fudge numbers. Were these financial numbers?

Yes, these were financial numbers, numbers of impressions, numbers of clients, things like that that we would use to bolster the reputation of the company or client, so people would say, “Wow, this is the industry leader. I want to work with them, or I want to be their customer,” when really that wasn’t the case. You’re also putting yourself ahead of other people, so I wasn’t comfortable in that scenario.

Did you enlist others to help convince your bosses, or were you just keeping this as a one-on-one conversation?

When you’re faced with that sort of dilemma, how do you react? Do you bring it up the food chain? It is a question a lot of people have to deal with when they’re faced with an ethical challenge. I tried to deal with it one-on-one and tried to convince the people that I was dealing with that were more senior than me from the company or client on what was the right thing, but that left me on an island, and as I’m sure people in this situation can talk about, it’s a very lonely feeling. You question yourself; you question whether or not you’re being over cautious, but in most cases, you should really follow your gut. When you feel something that doesn’t feel right, or you smell something that doesn’t smell right, there’s a reason. And so you have to decide what you’re going to stand for.

Was there a second ethical issue you wanted to highlight?

I faced another one several years ago. Again, I was a more junior person in a room, and a more senior person started to use off-color language that today, with both the #MeToo movement and the Black Lives Matter movement, would be cause for dismissal, cause for potential huge crisis, but at the time it was sort of an old boys club network type of thing where that was more accepted and I felt uncomfortable at the time. Things were said in the presence of women or presence of minorities that I didn’t feel right about.

I didn’t stand up and say anything at the time. And that one eats at me. Should I have said something? Should I have done something there? Should I report that person?

In some cases, the comments were made when it was just me and this person, and so I think by not doing something very early in the relationship I had with this person, it set the standard that they thought it was okay for them to talk and behave like that around me. It created a challenge for me with working with this person.

What do I do? I had to ask myself what are you going to stand up for? What are you going to believe? If that person were to say that in front of your friends that was a minority or a woman, what would you do in that case? Would you let them do that right in front of your friend? And if you wouldn’t want them to do it then, why is it okay for them to do it when they’re not around? And is it really the kind of person you want to work for, or the kind of company you want to work for that allows that to happen?

I thought of that again as these things were unfolding over the last couple of years. I thought of myself in that situation. And yes, it was a different time back then, but I still knew better, if you will, and was always wondering why didn’t I say something sooner or why I didn’t make a change. In the end that person was called out for that very thing and eventually let go, but it wasn’t until several years after I worked with them. This is something I can imagine many people having to deal with depending on where they are, what sort of industry they’re working in, who they’re working with, the age and the backgrounds of the people they’re working with.

It is something I think about a lot and it never left me feeling well about the way I handled it. If you talk about key lessons learned, or one thing I would’ve done differently, I would have established early on with that relationship that that just talk wasn’t going to be okay with me, and let that person know that I would be willing to go to HR, if it didn’t change. But again, as a junior person, that can be very tough to do. How do you do that when you’re trying to navigate your career, and you’re trying to climb that corporate ladder? How do you do that without rocking the boat, but you know it’s wrong?

It’s a good point, and it drives home the need to draw a line in the sand quickly when there’s issues that really impact you that you think have that, because otherwise if you accept it once or twice, people are going to assume it’s okay.

Exactly. I mean once that precedent is set, you enter this dark spiral where it gets worse and worse. This is the case with many ethical challenges that people face. No-one ever starts out by saying, “I’m going to defraud the company of millions,” or, “I’m going to create a toxic culture.” It starts with little things on a day-to-day basis. It’s one number is fudged or it’s one comment is made and it goes unchecked, and so the person feels emboldened to make another comment, or they feel okay to maybe fudge more numbers, or maybe add a penny here or a dollar there, or a plus versus a minus, and it all adds up eventually.

It all comes to roost at some point. And that was one of the things I tried to convince my bosses of when I was talking about the ethical challenge of fudging numbers was that if this got out and that we had done this, if this comes to light, how bad would it be for the company? Is it really worth moving up one or two spots on a list when you could face with that crisis?

That’s a really good point, and it’s something I’ve said quite a bit. It’s the death of a thousand cuts. It’s the little things that add up to cause so many systemic issues.

And that’s why people talk about it as a toxic culture. It’s not necessarily one person. You don’t say it’s a toxic person. It’s usually a culture. And the culture is created by the way we handle our business on a day-to-day basis. And if we are unethical or if we let things slide that we know we should correct, those add up, and the people that work in that company that don’t stand for those things, they notice. And now with the way that social media has emboldened people to have a voice and to speak up, your company, your institution, your culture is much more likely to be called out for something like that.

And so it’s up to you as a leader to make those hard calls and make the decisive action to stop that as soon as you hear it. It is easier said than done, I know, but luckily, I’ve had the opportunity in my career to also work for some really great and people that I admire a lot who were strong leaders, who had that voice, and would do what they thought was right. And so if you can surround yourself with those people and work for those companies, you’re going to find yourself feeling a lot better about yourself personally, and not just your career.

Thinking beyond your own personal experiences, what are you seeing as some of the key communication ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

Well, as someone who has had to write statements over the years defending a company or institution for a misstep, it can be tough when the actions of a company are not something you agree with, but as a lead communicator, you might have to write a statement or put out a social media post defending their actions or explaining their actions. It is an ethical dilemma when what your company has decided to do does not reconcile with what you personally believe. How do you reconcile those two things? It can be very challenging. Sometimes you have to put aside your personal beliefs for the good of the company.  But if that’s not what you believe in, it could come back to haunt you later.

Similarly, what is the representation that you’re putting out? What are you trying to say your company stands for? What’s your mission? But you might not believe in it, or you might not believe in the products, the services you’re offering. So the challenges as a communicator is your whole role is to tell a story, but if you don’t believe that story, if you don’t have a good foundation for that story, how do you do that? And so that’s when a lot of times I think people will take a look back at what they’re doing, and the company they’re working for, and saying, “Can I look myself in the mirror if every day I’m telling this one story, but I believe another one?” Or even if the company is representing themselves for what they really are, is what they really are what you want to be?

An ethical challenge for today for people is transparency and how transparent is the company that you’re working for? How can you as a communicator communicate that to their constituents, whether it be their customers or potential partners? And do you believe it? That’s the big challenge that I see, and I deal with it still every day with research we might be working on at Harvard Business School, or with social media posts we’re doing talking about the school in how do those represent the school, the students, the faculty. It’s very important to me that it’s an accurate representation, but sometimes the accurate representation isn’t exactly what is in the best interest from a business perspective. So how do you balance those two things?

What is your advice for somebody in that situation? What are some of the tools and processes you go through to come to the optimal outcome?

We think about it a lot with social media, for example. If someone was scrolling through our feed, how long does it take for them to see a person that looks like them? I’m talking about images now, but I think it goes for a crisis situation. If you think of all your potential customers, how long would it take for someone reading a statement or seeing a response to feel that you spoke to them? This can be tough to do because you can talk to a lot of different kinds of people, but I think the best advice I can give is try to think of your best customer and your worst customer, and how does your response address their needs, and their feelings, and their beliefs.

It can be tough to do because a lot of times you’re going to come down on the side of an issue that is not good for maybe 50% of your customers. They don’t agree with it. But if that’s what the company is going for, you can get behind it, I think you’re better off going that way than trying to appease everyone. But try to think of not just your best customers, but all your customers, and then try to think of the response that’s going to speak to all of them as best as possible. I know it’s a tough way to answer it, but you have to do that these days, because if you don’t, it’s going to be spread and shared on social or in media much more than before, when it was a printed newspaper statement, one paragraph that lived for a day.

Tell me more about your thoughts on transparency.  How transparent are you and what’s the right approach to take in your opinion?

I think there’s two things to keep in mind. One is working at a public company, you have to be very transparent with your numbers because they’re being reported, and stock price and stock evaluation will move based on those numbers, so you have a certain obligation when it comes to financials.

Then there is the obligation of transparency when it comes to a misstep or an issue with the company. And what we’ve always said is if you try to hide that and not be transparent about what occurred and what you’re doing, it just makes the situation worse. We always talk about getting out in front of a crisis situation, which can be tough to do because you’re not sure how your customers are going to respond and the public is going to respond, but we always know that it turns out worse if you’re not transparent from the start and you’re not quick and decisive.

I see people who say, “Okay, this might just go away if we leave it alone.” It almost never goes away. What you have to do is be out front of it if you can, and be transparent about it. People are much more likely to forgive you if you come out with a strong statement apologizing for your actions than if you come out with a weak statement that doesn’t get all the facts, doesn’t address the challenges, and doesn’t really make people feel comfortable with the action you’re taking. They’d rather hear you say sorry than defend yourself and dig yourself deeper in a hole.

Aside from how you’re dealing with COVID (because there’s going to be a delay between the time this is recorded and airs), what are some of the ethical issues you’re grappling with right now in higher education?

I think there’s a couple of them. One of the major ones is the cost of education and access for all. Harvard is one of the more expensive schools in the country, but we try to do a good job with our fellowships, essentially scholarships, to make it accessible to all, but we know there’s still work to be done.

How can we offer even online experiences that people can come and experience the school in a way that’s feasible for them? And it’s not just financial, but also racial, background and diversity. How can we make higher ed a more accepting place?

One of the things that’s really important for Harvard Business School is diversity in the classroom, because we’re built on the case method, which is where a professor will talk about a business case and then it’s discussed amongst the students. The way that they learn best is by having diverse opinions discussed all around them. So if we don’t have that diversity in the classroom, they’re not getting the most out of it.

A big challenge for higher ed is how do you make education more accessible to all? How do you make it more diverse, both in the classroom and then in the staff and faculty that work there? And then how do you deal with COVID?

This is not just looking at the Fall, but at how things will change over the next couple of years. How has this current pandemic changed the way we think and look at education? Every day I’m working with our admissions team, our career professional development team, our MBA team on those challenges. How do we bring the best possible product to students? How do we get a different diverse student body? And then what’s our role? As an educational institution that also does research, what important topics are we going to cover from a research perspective? Because people then quote those and look to us as a leader in the research that we’re doing. So what topics are we diving into?

At Harvard Business School we have things called initiatives, which include entrepreneurship, business and environment, social enterprise, gender and inclusion, and those initiatives look at all the different types of research in those areas and produce studies. So what topics are we going to cover that people are going to then use to help make their own decisions or to help decide what they want to do with their company. I think higher ed is not just an educational institution for students, undergrads, and grads, we also have responsibility to do great and amazing research that can help shape the world.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you were given?

That’s a great question. It’s sort of like no-one ever wished they spent more time at work, they always say, “I wish I spent more time at home.” Along those lines, when you look back on your life and your career, will you remember what was gained from a lie you told or a corner you cut one time to get ahead, either you personally or for your company? Or you remember the fact that you cut that corner? Here it is some 15, 20 years later, I’m still talking about when I was really early in my career, when one person asked me to fudge a number, and we didn’t end up doing it, but I remember that. That was one of the first things that came to me. When you’re thinking about what you want to do, try to think of yourself down the line. And when you look back on your career and what you did, will this be a defining moment for you?

What will you remember more? That speaks to the importance of staying true to yourself first and foremost. It can be tough. In many places you’re taught these three things, it’s company first, team second, and you third. And I agree with that for the most part, but the challenge is you’re going to have to live with yourself. You’re third, but you have spent the rest of your life with yourself. You might leave that company one day, people on your team may come and go, but you have to live with yourself and the decisions you’ve made. People have told me always stay true to yourself, and I really believe that because at the end of the day, you’re going to have to live with these decisions a long time down the road.

Check out the full interview, with bonus content, here

Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
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Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the general manager of C+C's Boston office. C+C is a communications agency all about the good and purpose-driven brands. 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


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