Compliance & ethics officers in the realm of bias

Bias and conflicts of interest are, of course, related to each other;  but they also differ, in that the former can be based purely on thoughts (or feelings or beliefs) whereas the latter generally requires something truly tangible, such as an economic or familial relationship. Prior postings on bias – particularly those underpinning the field of behavioral ethics – can be found here. But, the world of bias is a vast one, and there is much to be explored about it.

A study recently summarized on the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation offers an interesting example of one type of bias among CEOs. The author of the study – Scott E. Yonker, of Cornell University – sought to determine “Do Managers Give Hometown Labor an Edge?”, based on a review of certain employment-related decisions affecting company operations of varying distances from the hometowns of the companies’ respective CEO’s. The answer – somewhat unsurprisingly, at least to me – was Yes: “The results show that following periods of industry distress, units located near CEOs’ hometowns experience fewer employment and pay reductions, and are less likely to be divested relative to other units within the same firm. Units located closer to CEO birthplaces experience 4.1% greater employment growth and 2.4% greater wage growth compared to similar units. Since employment and wages fall by 3.0% at the average firm unit following industry distress, these findings suggest that hometown units are largely spared. Moreover, these differences have seemingly permanent effects, the wage differences last at least three years, while employment differences revert about three years after industry downturns. With regard to divestitures, units that are more distant from CEO birthplaces are about 6% more likely to be divested.”

Is this at all relevant to the work of compliance & ethics professionals? I think the answer to that is Yes, as well. Or more accurately, It should be.

Of course, “hometown” forms of bias are not as pernicious as are those concerning race, gender and other categories of individuals who have historically been the victims of societal oppression. But the true promise of C&E programs extends to addressing all forms of unfairness, both because non-merit-based decision making in the workplace is (from an economic  efficiency perspective) presumptively bad for businesses (i.e., an inefficient use of resources); and because such decisions can lead to demoralization of a workforce (adversely impacting, among other things, the ethical conduct of those so affected).

Ultimately, for a company to have not only a strong compliance program but also an ethics one, the CEO and other leaders would empower the C&E officer to identify and challenge decisions that may be based on bias. (Note that I don’t mean literally  all such decisions, but those that are significant in potential impact and have a meaningful  ethics/fairness dimension.) The leaders would do so because they would understand that being fair is not just a matter of good intentions; rather, it can  also require expertise and effort – both  of which the C&E officer can bring to a challenging set of circumstances.

The C&E movement has  made a lot of progress in the past quarter century, but we are a long way from getting to such a place. Still, as is often said, it is good to have a goal.

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