On September 8, 2012 The New York Times ran a front page story about Marcone, a company that may well be the largest authorized dealer of appliance parts in theU.S. it’s been around since 1932.The reason for its front page notoriety is due to one of its senior vice presidents, Carlos Garcia, buying, essentially smuggling, and reselling large quantities of a banned refrigerant for appliances such as refrigerators and air conditioners. Garcia imported the gas, HCF-22 which damages the ozone layer, without the necessary approvals, thereby violating international treaties andU.S.law. The substance has been prohibited in new appliances since 2010. In June, Garcia was sentenced to 13 months in jail.
Faced with a tempting or risky issue, a powerful person, a powerful company, a powerful country is most likely still to believe that there is a good chance of getting away with something. Lie low and time will make the issue recede into history. Put a band aid on and no one will dare to pierce your impenetrable shell. This is what happened to Wal-Mart in April of this year when its Mexican subsidiary was exposed as having engaged in pervasive bribery as a normal course of business. What would have happened if Wal-Mart had entertained a genuine independent internal investigation when it had the opportunity, and made those findings known to the Justice Department and to the State ofMexico? There would have been a much smaller story. Wal-Mart would at least have been accused of being honorable. Its reputation for integrity would have been burnished. It would have paid a price but perhaps not as steep a price as it will now pay.
Why don’t people get it? Because there is a gambler in all of us, even when the odds are poor. Is there a chance we can get away with something? Let’s give it a try. What do we have to lose? Ask Richard Nixon. Ask Bill Clinton. Ask all those who have tried to wheedle their way out of messes only to get caught. Ah but then again there is always that other guy, the guy who got away with it. We should follow him. He’s a smart guy. He knew the angles. If he could do it, we can too. Right now things are calm. Let’s not rock the boat. But in the long run the straight-shooter almost always wins.
What’s the lesson for CEO’s of organizations? It’s simple really. Every organization has a “culture”. An integral part of that culture should be a requirement for high ethical standards, communicated from the top down. Transmitting the idea of winning at any cost will most likely ensure that some manager or employee down the chain will misconstrue the message and take ridiculous liberties in order to be noticed. Turning a blind eye to actions that are suspect bears the same message, even if it takes a little longer to filter down. Excessive emphasis on the bottom line can put extraordinary pressure on executives and managers to wring blood out of a stone and look for routes that will pay huge rewards, oftentimes the risk be damned. Johnson & Johnson has certainly paid a huge price to its reputation under the leadership of William Weldon, who retired as CEO just a few months ago. Under his guidance J&J’s wonderful standing in the eyes of the public has plummeted. The number of recalls, dirty facilities and end-runs around regulations over the last several years have contributed to the erosion of its sterling reputation of putting the consumer first as it did in the Tylenol scare of 1982.
What can a CEO do? First establish a no tolerance rule for non-ethical behavior. Anyone whose conduct exceeds the bounds of propriety is gone. Second, very careful employment screening is a must. Thirdly, establish ethical standards. Easier said than done? Perhaps but the effort should be made. Obviously if certain conduct is illegal, then it clearly has no place in the organization. beyond that if conduct is egregious enough to create the valid claim of negligence or breach of contract it should not be tolerated. Finally, if conduct would offend any one class or more of your stakeholders then it should be carefully considered. No organization should take an action that has the potential for angering its customers or clients, its investors, suppliers, employees, government officials, the public at large or the media. Of course, angering your competition is a different story, unless it angers the public at large and boomerangs.
No organization can protect itself against the errant employee who may jeopardize its reputation, legal standing or success. Nevertheless, it is imperative that the CEO and the board of any entity establish the rules of conduct by which it wishes to be known and respected.