The Single Best Lesson You Can Teach in Ethics Training: Secrets Hate Being Kept
Mark Ohringer, Global General Counsel, Jones Lang LaSalle, USA
When you train your people on your company’s code of ethics, what is the single-most useful lesson you can impart? What is the one thing you want everybody to take away with them when they leave the room that will keep them out of trouble and will keep your company out of the newspaper? The technical definition of a facilitating payment? The meaning of quid-pro-quo sexual harassment? The nuances of the FCPA or the UK Bribery Act?
None of these. The single most useful, best lesson you should make sure everyone understands, the one thing they must never forget, is that their secrets will hate being kept. Just like nature abhors a vacuum, secrets cannot stand being restricted and they will do anything possible to break free, to be heard, to see the full light of day. It is amazing how often people don’t even think about this, or ignore the absolute force of what they are up against and actually, whether arrogantly or naively or both, that they think somehow they will be the first ones in human history to overcome it. And it is the failure to learn this most basic lesson that will inevitably, someday, somehow, by hook or by crook, in ways that they could never have predicted, get them into trouble and rain embarrassment down upon all who supported them, trusted them, and relied upon them. It is therefore also the one lesson that should be the best friend of every Chief Legal Officer. It probably also applies to everything else the CLO does in connection with litigation, transactions, and the rest of it, but just to keep it simple we’ll stick to ethics for now.
Corporate ethics and integrity training, like your church, temple, or mosque, often tries to appeal to the higher moral spirit: “Here’s the right thing to do.” “Virtue is its own reward.” We tell our people that we are fiduciaries for our shareholders and must guard their interests and assets just as we would our own. But let’s face it, this message likely only works on the people who weren’t going to commit mischief in the first place. It is not a message that’s going to get through to the ones you need to reach the most, namely the people who are likely to cause the trouble because they are the ones without the scruples. Or, even giving them the benefit of the doubt, they’re the ones most prone to the temptation to stray or the ones who are prone to bend to the very real pressures out there to make the numbers every quarter.
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