Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Corporate Communications and Ethics

What do you do when you no longer believe in the position or information your employer wants you to tell the public? If you hang around the business of disseminating information for companies long enough, this is an issue you may very well face.

Such was the position Wendell Potter, former Vice President of Corporate Communications at CIGNA, the health care insurer, found himself in a while back. His experience in seeing the human side of lack of health care coverage ran smack into his company’s opposition to health care reform and its practices of canceling health care coverage in order to write only the most profitable policies. Potter underwent a change of heart and wound up leaving his executive position at CIGNA in order to work for the opposite side of the argument. You can discover more about his actions and see his interview with Bill Moyers at www.pbs.org/moyers/journal.

The interview set me to thinking about the right way to handle such situations, either in an investor relations context or a broader communications context. What are the ethics of the situation? Does your duty lie to your employer or your sense of what’s right? When do you reach the point of walking away? What about your family that relies on you for support? You can’t predict how or in what circumstances these situations will confront you. Not all of us have a moment such as St. Paul on the road to Damascus, but if you have thought through some of the things you may face beforehand it helps clarify the issues when it becomes your turn in the penalty box.

First, there are the simple cases. At the egregious end of the scale, if your employer tells you to communicate something that is wrong or clearly misleading, and it’s material, you are obligated to say no. For public companies, disseminating false or misleading material information is a violation of federal securities laws and no employer can make you break the law. If your choice is between going to jail or being unemployed, better to be free and poor than employed but awaiting sentencing.

At the other end of the scale, there are the things your company does which you may not personally like but which you have to defend. Corporations are profit-maximizing entities that sometimes close divisions or plants at great human cost. You may not like the particular actions in question, but they are for the long-term health of the corporation and its shareholders, so you swallow hard and stick to the company talking points. Welcome to the real world. As long as you can get up in the morning and look yourself in the mirror, you should be OK.

But what if things fall somewhere in the middle or you can no longer look yourself in the mirror? You become convinced your company is wrong, or headed down the wrong strategic path? They are not doing anything illegal, but they are doing things you don’t agree with. At what point do you get off the bandwagon? Are there things you can do to prevent what looks to be inevitable or are the only options quit or keep your mouth shut? I wish I had the answers for those questions, but they are often very dependant on the exact situation a person finds themselves in, and each of us must find our own ethics path, often without much help from anyone else. There are however, a couple of books that might be helpful to the process. Joseph L. Badaracco, Jr. a Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard Business School, has written two books, Defining Moments, When Managers Must Choose Between Right and Right and Leading Quietly, An Unorthodox Guide to Doing the Right Thing. These books suggest strategies for de-escalating situations where ethical conflict may arise. In addition, Professor Badaracco recognizes in Leading Quietly that sometimes the small things we do in the name of self-preservation are OK. All of us have mixed motives in the business world, including the desire to stay employed. Sometimes it may be necessary to pick your battles, saving your moral stands for the important issues.

I haven’t presumed to provide many answers here. When faced with these situations, each of us must do what we believe to be right. The press celebrates those like Wendell Potter who take a clear moral stand. Certainly there is justification for this, as they have clearly sacrificed much to make their stand. But as Professor Badaracco points out in his books, there are often things we can do to dial down the potential conflict before it comes to an all or nothing stand. These may not be perfect solutions, but it’s not a perfect world.

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