in Business Design

Human-centered corporate ethics

In the Wall Street Journal today:

  • Adelphia is close to a $725 million settlement with the SEC for a corporate looting and accounting scandal
  • AIG’s woes continue as two top executives are fired and the CEO has to decide whether to cooperate with the government’s investigation
  • The former controller of WorldCom awaits sentencing after his false accounting entries led to a $11 billion fraud and the loss of 17,000 jobs
  • A judge in Florida has ruled that Morgan Stanley helped Sunbeam conceal accounting woes that cost one investor $680 million
  • Don Imus’s ranch for sick children manged to spend $2.6 million while helping just 100 kids

…and that’s just above the fold, on the front page. And this is the Journal, not the more liberal New York Times. Inside you’ll find Microsoft’s European antitrust sanctions, a flurry of accounting restatements related to auction-rate securities, and Cantor Fitzgerald’s illegal hiring practices. It’s clear the Journal is taking a strong stand on corporate ethics.

The solutions are less easy to identify. Surfaces causes cited have been:

  • Uncreative approaches to revenue targets
  • Failure of leaders to send the right message
  • Lack of incentives for people to actively do the right thing, e.g. report unethical behavior of co-workers
  • Cover-your-ass solutions like policies and handbooks that “The Office” so rightly lampoons
  • Employee anxiety caused by occasional and disruptive change, e.g. mergers
  • Allowing some dishonesty, which in turn breeds more dishonesty

I think ethics needs to be baked-in to an organization’s DNA. I think it needs to be a constraint that is always followed, in the form of customer representation on projects and a service-not-office style of working. I think the human-centered approaches inherent in customer research, empathetic designers and design thinkers in general are needed, and companies are feeling enough pain to change.