The Week in Ethics: The Ethics of Conscience

Lately in various places there has been a discussion about who is, or should be, the conscience of the company.  A panel of public relations (PR) academics and practitioners discussed recently the merits of whether the PR function represented the company conscience.

I remember a discussion several years ago between a PR vice president and a general counsel in which both purported to act as the company conscience in an environment in which top management didn’t seem to have that issue on their radar. The company benefited because there were two sets of radar scanning for potential problems from different vantage points.

Clearly an organization needs people willing to step up to the plate and hold the organization accountable to a higher standard, based on the organization’s stated values, and on an individual’s moral compass or ethical leadership.

However, public relations leaders cannot fill the role of ethics officers. The PR role is focused on the strategic positioning of the organization, getting the best sound bite, persuading media and stakeholders about the rightness of an organization’s position. PR people may have the personal commitment to take on the issue of the organization doing no harm and counsel the CEO on doing the “right thing” in a situation where the organization is being held accountable, but they are not trained to do the jobs of ethics officers. There is also the potential of conflicts of interest based on how the two job descriptions play out.

It also may be that a legal counsel charged with defending and protecting the organization may have a conflict of interest when the duties to protect clash with the duties to be transparent and accountable.

So, if the CEO isn’t stepping up to be accountable as the conscience of the company, the PR person and the general counsel may have conflicts of interest, and the board talks in terms of risk management, but not conscience, who fills that void? Well a recent column in Fast Company points to the obvious, that a company doesn’t have a conscience but people do.

With all due respect to whistle blowers, there is a stage before the crisis when gaps in what the company is doing or how it is presenting itself don’t ring true to an employee or a supervisor who is willing to engage, and ask clarifying questions.

The fact is that the conscience of a company is not a rarefied role. It is held by the CEO, the board of directors, the legal department, PR, design, engineering, manufacturing, Corporate Social Responsibility, sustainability, human resources, the ethics office, a line worker, a new employee, or anyone.

It is about asking questions, trying to integrate information, and looking for the alignment around what the company says it stands for compared to what it does.

The corporate conscience was dormant at BP, Goldman Sachs, Toyota, Lehman Brothers and at many other scenes of crisis where leadership wasn’t engaged around questions of “do no harm” and self-interest and greed prevailed.

The conscience of the company is about trying to understand disconnects, and raising questions designed to get at what the company really is willing to stand for. It is about curiosity, courage, and conviction. It is a shared role, a collaborative endeavor, which asks of those listening how to create a better organization, one that is more authentic and real, in service to a company’s mission and values.

Gael O’Brien, October 5, 2010

The Week in Ethics



1 thought on “The Week in Ethics: The Ethics of Conscience

  1. Ethics Sage

    Great blog on the conscience of the company. I teach ethics and know that it takes a variety of groups in an organization to promote ethical behavior. It starts with the “tone at the top” that should make it clear to employees that unethical behavior will not be tolerated. Then, reprisals for unethical conduct must be applied fairly. Ethics training helps as would a code of ethics or credo that instills ethical values.


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