Loyalty as an ethics risk

Movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn famously said: “I’ll take fifty percent efficiency to get one hundred percent loyalty.”  But too much loyalty can be bad for reasons that go beyond inefficiency, as shown by ex-President Trump’s call for then FBI director Comey to be loyal to him personally. On the other hand, a world with too little loyalty could be highly dysfunctional and even hellish.

In a piece in Forbes several years ago Rob Asgar made the following important  points  (among others) about loyalty:

The “loyalty bind,” as some psychologists call it, keeps the members of an organization from being able to see tumors metastasizing in their midst. It’s what leads to scandals and cover-ups in churches, city halls, companies and ideological movements.

The challenge is to move organizations away from the notion of loyalty to persons and toward the notion of loyalty toward first principles. These principles include transparency, integrity, accountability and a constant readiness to reform in whatever way necessary—no matter whose personal interests may be affected. This isn’t easy, because humans are tribal—we evolved to be in the society of other humans and to instinctively sacrifice our own safety in order to defend them against outside threats. The notion of defending shared principles came later, and it still hasn’t taken root fully. 

The point about humans being tribal is, of course, key.  When behavior is truly instinctive it is hard (and sometimes impossible) to prevent/modify.

C&E practitioners have, of course, long looked for ways to do just that.  Sometimes this involves appealing to shared values, as noted above.  But it can also entail  drawing on loyalty to other persons.

For instance, years ago I helped to develop a short C&E training video that sought to evoke feelings of a “larger loyalty” by showing the faces of colleagues laid off in the wake of an accounting scandal that could have been, but wasn’t, stopped in the early stages by a potential whistleblower.  Another video focused on the harm to the wrongdoer’s family members when he went to jail for his crime against the company.

In addition to training, other forms of communication should be used to address the downsides of misdirected loyalty. Among other things, senior officials at the company. (particularly the CEO) should speak to it in town halls and/or emails to all employees.

Risk assessment also has a role to play in addressing loyalty-related risks. In  Ethics for Adversaries,    Arthur Isak Applbaum describes how many of the adversary systems with which we live – law, politics, and others – seem to license wrongdoing that would not be countenanced if done in other settings.  As he notes, “[A]dversaries act for by acting against,” and this leads to a purported “division of moral labor” – with the expectation that some sort of equilibrium will arise therefrom.   But, he says, acts that ordinarily would be morally forbidden – such as deception – should not be considered permissible merely because they are performed in a political or professional role.  

Finally, audit has a role to play too. Among other things, it can focus audits on a company’s facility that has been managed for a long time by a particular executive.

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