I´m not a corporate ethics expert, but I do know something about keeping-and giving away-secrets. Sometimes when someone asks us to keep a secret he or she may be unintentionally heaping a big burden on our shoulders. Several years ago I decided that I actually had a choice when someone asked if I could keep a secret. This isn´t always possible in the workplace however. We generally need to do what we´re asked (to a degree). But therein lays the problem: it is really a secret that we´re being asked to keep or is it something private? Julie Keller, the culture critic of the Chicago Tribune, writes this morning about the controversies surrounding the word "privacy." Without going into too much detail about privacy issues and security and the government I want to mention the importance of defining concepts to your staff before laying down strict ethics policies.
It made me laugh (well, I actually snickered I think) when I did a very brief search on corporate ethics and one of the first things to come up was a reference to some research conducted by none other than Arthur Andersen’s Ethics and Responsible Business Practices group. For those who prefer to put these episodes behind them Arthur Andersen fell from its accounting perch when one of its biggest clients, Enron, became the target of a huge business scandal. Happily ever after? Hardly.
It´s not easy to follow these news stories. At least I found it rather cumbersome to figure out who did what, when and where. Still, I wondered why those who were found responsible did what they did? Surely, they knew what they were doing. I guess as far as employee development goes the question is how responsible are you as a business owner or manager to inculcate certain company values so that what should remain private stays private. It would be interesting to know how many companies have ethics officers or ethics departments or some kind of focus on ethical behavior. It´s a slippery slope as they say-what´s ethical to one may not be ethical to another.
It reminds me a little of the assumptions that go with telling/sharing/betraying a confidence. You know something. You´re dying to tell somebody else and you´re absolutely positive that the person you tell will keep the secret. Okay. But what about your own behavior? Weren´t you supposed to keep the secret, too? Talk about paying it forward. That´s the problem with secrets. They can be huge burdens, which may explain why people in business can´t keep them. It´s too much to ask. But is it?
Maybe if we stop calling them secrets and redefine what privacy means there will be less sharing. Maybe if we explain in really clear language what can happen if certain pieces of information are spread to the public or the competition employees will truly understand how massive the consequences can be-without necessarily bringing them to a front-page newspaper near you. Could you explain, today, to you employees and colleagues why some information is for their eyes only?