The science of disclosure gets more interesting – and useful for C&E programs

In “Nothing to Declare: Mandatory and Voluntary Disclosure Leads Advisors to Avoid Conflicts of Interest,” published last month in Psychological Science,    Sunita Sah   and George Loewenstein   note that “[p]rior research documents situations in which advisors— subject to unavoidable COIs—feel morally licensed to give more-biased advice when their conflict is disclosed,” as well other  factors suggesting that disclosure is often less of an effective mitigant than might be imagined.  (For more information on some of this research see this post on moral licensing and this one  on the pressure that individuals to whom disclosure is made might feel to accept the conflict.)  However, the authors argue – and support with the results of several experiments  that they conducted –   “[w]hen COIs are avoidable … the situation can change dramatically because the ability to avoid conflicts brings other motives into play.”

One of these motives is that “disclosure becomes a potential vehicle for demonstrating one’s own ethics …to signal to themselves and to others that they are honest and moral …and that they prioritize others’ interests over their own.”  A second motive is that “in many situations advisors benefit financially when advisees follow their advice… [and] disclosing the absence of conflicts increases the likelihood that the advice will be followed,…”

Sah and Loewenstein also note: “Evidence from the field complements [their] findings. The American Medical Student Association’s PharmFree Scorecards program (which grades COI policies at U.S. academic medical centers…) has been successful in encouraging many centers to implement stronger COI policies.  Similarly, mandatory disclosure of marketing costs for prescription drugs in the District of Columbia produced a downward trend in marketing expenditures by pharmaceutical companies, including gifts to physicians, from 2007 to 2010…”

The authors’ findings make sense to me.  Indeed, in one of the above-noted earlier posts I suggested that the research indicating that disclosure could be harmful in the professional advisor context because it creates pressure to accept the COI  may not apply to the same extent “in the setting of a business organization – with defined and enforced ethical standards regarding COIs, where one might be more concerned about looking bad to one’s colleagues (or bosses) than to the conflicted party.”

That is, the first of the two motivations that Sah and Lowenstein identify as relevant to disclosure – the desire to show one’s trustworthiness – is likely to be a powerful force in many business organizations given the often strong enforcement of COI rules that began with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and which is also supported  by the general importance of “organizational justice” to C&E program efficacy and the specific relevance of COI enforcement to organizational justice.  (The other motivation, however, is much less applicable outside of the professional advisor context, and indeed the notion of mandatory versus avoidable COIs may also be more relevant to the advisor context than for business organizations.)

So, the results of this study seem like good news.  But is it news that C&E professionals – who operate more in the business organization rather than in the professional advisor context – can use to make their companies’ C&E programs stronger?   Or, is it – as one C&E professional I know recently said of much behavioral ethics – the stuff of “parlor games”? (Note: I don’t agree with this critique, but it is worth noting that C&E practitioners, as a group, don’t seem to be doing much with behavioral ethics findings.)

I think that this knowledge can in fact be put to use for C&E purposes.   That is, it suggests that in policies, training and other C&E communications, companies should emphasize how timely and complete COI disclosure may be important to an employee’s being seen as trustworthy within an organization – as well as by other important parties (e.g., customers or suppliers).

More broadly, C&E professionals should find ways to address this motivation in helping employees understand the business case (in terms of their careers)  not just for full COI disclosure  but for ethical excellence  generally. Of course, this approach already exists to varying  modest degrees in some C&E programs, but there is plenty of room for many organizations to do more in this regard.

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