Compliance

In this section we examine how the various “tools” of a C&E program can be deployed to mitigate COIs, as well as other matters regarding the interaction of COIs and C&E programs. Please see the various sub-categories for information about each of these tools.

Conflicts of interest, compliance programs and “magical thinking”

An article earlier this week in the New York Times takes on the issue of “Doctors’ Magical Thinking about Conflicts of Interest.”  The piece was prompted by a just-published study  which examined “the voting behavior and financial interests of almost 1,400 F.D.A. advisory committee members who took part in decisions for the Center for Drug and Evaluation Research from 1997 to 2011” and found a powerful correlation between a committee member having a  financial interest (e.g., a consulting relationship or ownership interest ) in a drug company whose product was up for review and the member’s voting in favor of the company – at least in circumstances where the member did not also have interests in the company’s competitors.

Of course, this is hardly a surprise, and the Times piece also recounts the findings of earlier studies showing strong correlations between financial connections (e.g., receiving gifts, entertainment or  travel from a pharma company) and professional decision making (e.g., prescribing that company’s drug). Nonetheless, some physicians “believe that they should be responsible for regulating themselves.”

However, such self regulation can’t work, the article notes,  because “our thinking about conflicts of interest isn’t always rational. A study of radiation oncologists  found that only 5 percent thought that they might be affected by gifts. But a third of them thought that other radiation oncologists would be affected.  Another study asked medical residents similar questions. More than 60 percent of them said that gifts could not influence their behavior; only 16 percent believed that other residents could remain uninfluenced. This ‘magical thinking’ that somehow we, ourselves, are immune to what we are sure will influence others is why conflict of interest regulations exist in the first place. We simply cannot be accurate judges of what’s affecting us.”

While the findings of these and similar studies are, of course, most relevant to conflicts involving doctors and life science companies, there is a broader learning here which, I think, is vitally important to C&E programs generally.  That is, they help to show that “we are not as ethical as we think” – a condition hardly limited to the field of medicine or to conflicts of interest, as has been discussed in various prior postings on this blog.

One of the overarching implications of this body of knowledge is that we humans need structures – for business organizations this means  C&E programs, but more broadly these have been called “ethical systems” – to help save us from falling victim to our seemingly innate sense of ethical over-confidence.  So, to make that case, C&E professionals should – in training or otherwise communicating with employees (particularly managers) and directors  - address the issue of “magical thinking” head-on.

Moreover, using the example of COIs to prove the larger point here may be an effective strategy, because employees are more likely to have experience with ethical challenges in this area  than with other major risks, such as corruption, competition law or fraud – which indeed may be so scary as to be largely unimaginable to many employees.  I.e., these and other “hard-core” C&E risk areas might be subject to an even greater amount of magical thinking than is done regarding COIs.  So, at least in some companies,  discussing COIs might offer the most accessible “gateway” to addressing the larger topic of ethical over-confidence.

“The inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking”

Within the treasure trove of H.L. Mencken’s sayings, this definition of “conscience” may be my favorite.  And, various studies have indeed shown that the sense that somebody may be watching can help promote ethical behavior.  Among these are  experiments exposing individuals to “eyespots” –  drawings which create a vague sense of being watched, even among those who know as a factual matter that they aren’t being seen. (See, e.g., this study, showing that exposure to eyespots can promote generosity.)

While actually deploying eyespots around the workplace is hardly a viable option for most companies, various technological advances offer not only the appearance of being watched but the actuality of it.  Such monitoring technologies can be particularly promising for promoting compliance by parts of a workforce for whom supervision is relatively remote – which is often the case for sales people.

For two other risk-related reasons, sales people can be a logical choice for C&E monitoring:

- Their incentives may not align well with those of their respective companies – a “moral hazard” condition.  (Indeed, in a risk assessment interview I conducted last week, the interviewee responded to a question about conflicts of interest by saying – only somewhat in jest – that the whole company sales force had such conflicts.)

- Sales people tend to be in a position to cause legal/ethical violations – e.g., corruption, collusion and fraud – much more than the average employee at a company.

But, while the case for monitoring sales people is strong as a general matter, obviously not all monitoring strategies are equally effective.  According to a paper published in the September 2014 issue of the Journal of Business Research, “Does transparency influence the ethical behavior of salespeople?” John E. Cicala, Alan J. Bush, Daniel L. Sherrell and George D. Deitz (rentable on Deep Dyve): “it is not the perception of visibility that drives sales persons behavior, but rather the perception of the likelihood of negative consequences resulting from management use of knowledge and information gained from technologically increased visibility.”

Of course, these results – based on an on-line survey which is described in the paper – presumably won’t surprise any C&E professionals. (Nor, likely, would they have impressed Mencken, who also said: “A professor must have a theory as a dog must have fleas” – although I should add that that’s just another chance to quote the great man – not a reflection of my view of this paper.) But, as with much of the social science research discussed in this blog, having data to back up what is intuitively known may be useful, particularly when seeking to make C&E reforms in a company that are being resisted.

Most relevant here is the often-contentious issue of how open a company is with its discipline for violations (meaning not just of sales persons but any employee).  While C&E professionals typically understand that true “public hangings” – i.e., full identification of individual transgressions and transgressors – can be undesirable for all sorts of reasons, there is still a lot that their respective companies can do in a general way to show that   negative consequences do exist for breaches of C&E  standards. Hopefully, this new research can help C&E professionals make such a case.

Liability for faking compliance – a new-fashioned type of deterrence?

I have long felt that C&E programs should do more to appeal to the better angels of our nature. (For more information on how “pro-social” qualities can be built on to promote more ethical workplaces, see this research page from the Ethical Systems web site.) But at the end of the day there will always be a place for good old-fashioned deterrence.

Deterrence, in the business realm, traditionally operates by punishing those who engage in conduct that harms others (e.g., corruption, collusion, pollution). But as C&E program expectations themselves become more central to promoting responsible behavior by companies,  it is inevitable that a more “upstream” form of deterrence should emerge – in which faking compliance is itself the punishable (or otherwise addressable) wrong.  Indeed, this could be considered “new-fashioned” type of deterrence.

The COI Blog has previously discussed two cases of this sort – one involving Goldman Sachs , the other S&P  – both having to do with allegedly false claims by the defendant firms that they had taken strong compliance measures against conflicts of interest.  And at the end of last month, another case was brought in which faking compliance was itself found to be a punishable wrong.

The case – In the Matter of Mark Sherman — can be found here, but readers may find more useful a post about it on the Harvard corporate governance blog by attorneys from the Ropes & Gray law firm.  As they note:

“On July 30, 2014, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) advanced a novel theory of fraud against the former CEO (Marc Sherman) and CFO (Edward Cummings) of Quality Services Group, Inc. …, a Florida-based computer equipment company that filed for bankruptcy in 2009. The SEC alleged that the CEO misrepresented the extent of his involvement in evaluating internal controls and that the CEO and CFO knew of significant internal controls issues with the company’s inventory practices that they failed to disclose to investors and internal auditors. This case did not involve any restatement of financial statements or allegations of accounting fraud, merely disclosure issues around internal controls and involvement in a review of the same by senior management. The SEC’s approach has the potential to broaden practical exposure to liability for corporate officers who sign financial statements and certifications required under Section 302 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (‘SOX’). By advancing a theory of fraud premised on internal controls issues without establishing an actionable accounting misstatement, the SEC is continuing to demonstrate that it will extend the range of conduct for which it has historically pursued fraud claims against corporate officers.” (Emphasis added.)

Of course, there is much more that could be said about the various connections that the legal systems draws between violations of law and poor compliance than what’s in this and the other two cases mentioned above.  (See, for instance, this prior post about the SAC insider trading case brought last year - where the weakness of the company’s compliance program was used as a basis for finding corporate liability for insider trading by individual employees.) And, the notion of punishing fake (or otherwise weak) compliance efforts has long been part of enforcement strategies in highly regulated areas (e.g., broker-dealer compliance). But the Sherman case seems especially important, as it can be utilized in training corporate officers in public companies of all kinds on the need to be careful in executing their S-Ox certifications which, in turn, should lead them to have a greater appreciation of the value of strong compliance generally.

Finally, the Ropes & Gray post concludes with the following observation: “this case, which includes fraud charges in an accounting case without any restatement of financials, seems to represent an application of SEC’s ‘Broken Windows’ strategy first announced by Robert Khuzami and reiterated by Mary Jo White—to pursue small infractions on the theory that minor violations lead to larger ones—to the public company disclosure and accounting space.”  To this I would add that a “Broken Windows” strategy to preventing wrongdoing is also supported by behavioral ethics research (see this post ), and the Sherman case should also be a reminder for C&E officers to review whether their own companies’ deterrence systems  take this approach into account to a sufficient degree.

 

 

The Caterpillar criminal investigation: culture, risk and “informal” duties of trust

As described in an article in today’s Wall Street Journal  (which may require a subscription for access): “Ten thousand railcars a month roll into [the] sprawling [Terminal Island] port complex in Los Angeles County. While here, most are inspected by a subsidiary of Caterpillar Inc. [Progress Rail Services]. … When problems are found, the company repairs the railcars and charges the owner. Inspection workers, to hear some tell it, face pressure to produce billable repair work. Some workers have resorted to smashing brake parts with hammers, gouging wheels with chisels or using chains to yank handles loose, according to current and former employees. In a practice called ‘green repairs,’ they added, workers at times have replaced parts that weren’t broken and hid the old parts in their cars out of sight of auditors. One employee said he and others sometimes threw parts into the ocean.”

Caterpillar is being investigated by the US Attorney’s office in Los Angeles, and it should be emphasized that no charges have yet been brought.  Still, the article provides some nourishing food for thought about two key topics in the C&E field, as well as one narrower but, likely for some companies, dangerously under-appreciated risk.

First, there is the issue of culture.  As noted in the article, current and/or former employees told the Journal that while ‘[t]hey weren’t instructed to do [these things], …some managers made clear the workers would be replaced if they didn’t produce enough repair revenue…Current and former employees interviewed said those who found large numbers of parts to replace didn’t receive extra pay, but they tended to be favored by the supervisors and sometimes honored with employee-of-the-month recognition. Employees said newer workers sometimes learned bad habits from veterans. ‘I was trained to do everything the wrong way,’ one current worker said. ‘I basically fell into a bandit’s nest.’”

And then there’s this piece of information: “Three years ago, two workers who were fired from a Progress Rail repair shop in Florida filed lawsuits making allegations similar to what the U.S. attorney is looking into at Terminal Island…. A lawyer who represented the two said the suits were settled on terms that barred them from discussing the case.”

Again it should be emphasized that this is only an article – no charges have yet been brought.  But, if these allegations turn out to be founded, then clearly the culture in Caterpillar’s Progress Rail business will – under current enforcement policy – weigh in favor of bringing criminal charges against the company, meaning, in the first instance, the Progress Rail subsidiary.

But what about Caterpillar itself?  Here, the key issue may turn on whether Caterpillar conducted a meaningful risk assessment after it bought Progress Rail in 2006. I recall, from various conferences at that time, that Caterpillar had a C&E officer and program  – and so if it did not look closely at Progress’s risks (then or since) a prosecutor might well wonder why.

Finally, besides broad lessons about culture and risk assessment, the Caterpillar matter – depending, of course, on how it turns out – may reinforce a narrow but important learning about risk for some companies.  That is, when a company expands its business from just manufacturing goods to providing services it often enters a new realm of risk – because its employees are effectively in a relationship of trust with customers that involves opportunities and motives to cheat beyond those in the context in which it is used to operating.  As described in an earlier post in Corporate Compliance Insights,   risk assessments typically should include “[e]xamining whether a company has any relationships (with customers or others) where the need for good faith and candor might not be sufficiently understood by employees or third parties acting on its behalf. Relationships such as these – which tend to involve a high degree of trust but not necessarily a formal fiduciary duty – may be rife with ethics risk potential.”

Businesses facing this risk typically should consider enhanced C&E mitigation measures, and as the Caterpillar matter progresses (pun not intended) it will be interesting to see what – if anything – the company did on this front. (For further reading on informal fiduciary duties  see this post. )

Friendship – and the ties that blind (directors to conflicts of interest)

King Herod the Great had something of a problem: he had backed the losing side in the contest between Marc Antony and Octavian to rule Rome,  and now fully expected to lose his life for it.  But, as described in Jerusalem: the  Biography, by Simon Sebag Montefiore,  when they met he cleverly asked Octavian “not to consider whose friend he had been but ‘what sort of friend I am.’”  Octavian was evidently persuaded by this, for not only was Herod’s life spared but the size of his kingdom was increased.

Loyalty is, of course, fundamental to friendship.  But, while potentially more physically dangerous in the Roman Empire than it is today, friendship in our world can be ethically treacherous.

In “Will Disclosure of Friendship Ties between Directors and CEOs Yield Perverse Effects?”  (to be published in the July 2014 issue of the Accounting Review), Jacob M. Rose, Anna M. Rose, Carolyn Strand Norman and Cheri R. Mazza  describe how they conducted thought experiments involving both actual corporate directors and MBA students to determine  whether “directors who have  friendship ties with the CEO [are more likely that are directors without such friendships] to manage earnings to benefit the CEO in the short term while potentially sacrificing the welfare of the company in the long term” and also whether “public disclosure of friendship ties mitigate or exacerbate such behavior, and will disclosure of friendship ties influence investors’ perceptions of director decisions.”

Sadly but not surprisingly, their research  found “that friendship ties caused directors to be more willing to approve reductions to research and development (R&D) expenses that cause earnings to rise enough to meet the CEO’s minimum bonus target more often than  when the directors and CEO were not friends.” Seemingly more of a surprise, they also found that “disclosing friendship ties resulted in even greater reductions in R&D expenses and higher CEO bonuses than not disclosing friendship ties.”

But this latter finding is not so surprising – given other  behavioral research showing that disclosure can “morally license” individuals  to act inappropriately when faced with a conflict of interest ( as discussed in this   and other prior posts.) As described in a recent piece in the NY Times  by Gretchen Morgenson, one of the study’s authors explained: “When you disclose things, it may make you feel you’ve met your obligations…They’re not all that worried about doing something to help out the C.E.O. because everyone has had a fair warning.”

Morgenson added: “There are two messages in this study. One is for regulators: Simply disclosing a conflict or friendship does not eliminate its potential to create problems. The other,” again quoting one of the study’s authors (but echoing Herod) “is for investors: ‘Shareholders should take a more active role in finding out what kinds of relationships their boards and C.E.O.s have…and recognize the potential traps created by them’.”

For more on conflicts of interest and directors see the posts collected here .

 

Gamblers, strippers, loss aversion and conflicts of interest

What is the most potent type of conflict of interest?  To my mind,  those involving family members – as discussed in this earlier post on nepotism - are generally the strongest of all, given how deeply rooted  our instincts to help our kin are.

But being in another’s debt would seem to be pretty powerful too – because of the control of one’s life that it can place in the hands of others.   Moreover, compared to COIs involving an “upside”  (e.g., moonlighting for one of your employer’s vendors) “debt conflicts” seem  more likely to corrupt behavior – in part because of  the behaviorist phenomenon of  “loss aversion,” which holds that seeking to avoid a loss is generally a more potent force in shaping behavior than is achieving a gain.  Indeed, you don’t need to peer deep beneath the mind’s surface to grasp the power of debt for, as Dickens’ Mister Micawber observed using plain old arithmetic,  the smallest debt can clearly  be the source of large-scale ruin. (“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”) Thus, on various operative levels, a debt-based conflict can be particularly pernicious.

The most interesting recent “debt conflict of interest” case come to us from the U.S. Securities and Exchange  which found that “certified public accountant James T. Adams repeatedly accepted tens of thousands of dollars in casino markers while he was the advisory partner on subsidiary Deloitte & Touche’s audit of a casino gaming corporation.  A marker” –  the SEC pointed out, for those few unfortunate souls who have never seen Guys and Dolls -  “is an instrument utilized by a casino customer to receive gaming chips drawn against the customer’s line of credit at the casino.  Adams opened a line of credit with a casino run by the gaming corporation client and used the casino markers to draw on that line of credit.  Adams concealed his casino markers from Deloitte & Touche and lied to another partner when asked if he had casino markers from audit clients of the firm.”  Based on this obviously egregious behavior (which, I should add, involved far greater sums than those discussed by Mister Micawber), Adams – who ironically had also been Deloitte’s Chief Risk Officer – agreed to be “suspended for at least two years from practicing as an accountant on behalf of any publicly traded company or other entity regulated by the SEC.”

This was as clear a debt conflict case as one might hope to find (meaning, of course, hope never to find again).  But debt also comes in less obvious shapes too.

Consider this recent story from a trial now being held in the UK, the salient points of which (for this blog at least) are as follows: “A former UBS AG … banker told a London court that paying $7,100 for strippers to entertain consultants advising a German utility on a disputed derivatives deal didn’t create a conflict of interest.”   Looked at it as an “upside conflict” – meaning the consultants receiving free entertainment – maybe it is indeed not a powerful a COI (although personally having never been to a strip joint that’s just a guess).   But this particular sort of upside has an element of “debt conflict” too: given the embarrassing nature of the expenditure the consultants could well be concerned that their dirty secret would be revealed, i.e., they would likely be indebted to the bank for keeping quiet.   Of course, there would be reason enough to hide $7100 worth of even wholesome recreation paid for by a vendor, but it presumably has less potential to embarrass – and thus cause serious reputational loss – than does being entertained by strippers.

Finally, how should information about “debt conflicts” be used in C&E programs?  Certainly, debt should be included in the interests section of  the code of conduct or COI policies – which it usually, but not always, is.  Moreover, if one is providing examples of COIs in training and other form of C&E communications it may be worth mentioning there as well.  The point here is not merely to identify debt as one of many sources of potential COI, but to help give examples of COIs that will resonate with employees  - which I think debt-related ones often will do, precisely because of the above-described control aspect. And powerful examples of the effects of COIs can help to strengthen compliance in this area generally.

Strong ethics medicine: best practice COI policies for academic medical centers

In the universe of conflicts of interest, perhaps none are more significant – and worthy of study…. and action – than are those  involving doctors and health care industry (e.g., pharma, medical devices) companies.

On the one hand,  these types of conflicts are widely recognized to be very damaging.  Indeed, when I last compiled my largest  federal corporate criminal  fine list, three of the top four  cases of all time involved such COIs (though with a new entrant  to be added to this list  -   the SAC insider trading case – one should now say three of the top five).  On the other hand, this is one of the few areas where there is actually research to show that  good policies can in fact mitigate conflicts – as described in this earlier post

But that raises the question: what constitutes a best practice policy?

A new and useful resource in that regard is  this recently published article from Compliance Today by friend of the COI Blog Bill Sacks of HCCS,  which is based on a study issued by the Pew Charitable Trust late last year on best practice COI policies for academic medical centers. While most readers of this blog (to my knowledge) do not work in the health care area, C&E practitioners of all types (or others who are COI aficionados) might be interested in this case study of what strong COI-related mitigation can look like, and find useful ideas in it for dealing with COIs in their own respective fields.

CEOs’ ethical standards and the limits of compliance

I’m not one who sees ethics and compliance as operating in wholly distinct spheres, and have long felt that they closely complement each other.  (For more on the general relationship between the two  see this piece from the SCCE’s C&E journal.)  But, of course, they are not the same thing, and to some extent each has reach that the other doesn’t.

More specifically, for any given organization, the boundaries of compliance are – to a significant extent – defined by risk assessment.  Compliance-related risk assessment can and should be done in an expansive and innovative manner (as discussed in this complimentary e-book ) but it is ultimately finite in ways that are less applicable to true ethical standards.  And when it comes to CEOs – who have near infinite capacity for engaging in mischief in their companies – the latter form of protection can be particularly important.

To take the example of conflicts of interest, a  prior post described how CEO COIs can be different than those faced by the rest of us and a NY Times story last week seems to illustrate that point.  It concerns a company (Questcor Pharmaceuticals) which appears to have timed  various corporate announcements with an eye toward boosting its stock price in advance of sales by the CEO pursuant to a “10b5-1” plan (which is an automated procedure to sell stock at specified future dates based on prior instructions).  I should stress that the case for the CEO’s stock sales being the motivation for the scheduling of the announcements in question is wholly circumstantial.  Still, a commentator from Bloomberg who set out to debunk the case ran the numbers and ended up essentially “rebunking” it – i.e., supporting by statistical analysis, at least to some degree, what the Times suspects.

Not being statistically adept, I have nothing to add about the specifics of this case (other than to say I hope the company’s board conducts an independent inquiry of the matter).  Rather, I mention the story because I have to believe that this sort of conflict of interest – assuming, for the purposes of discussion here, that the theory of wrongdoing is well founded – is unlikely to show up in most risk assessments, and thus  this illustrates the earlier point about the limits of compliance.  But from an ethics perspective, no CEO  (or board member or “gatekeeper”) could reasonably believe that gaming a 10b5-1 plan in this way was okay, as it would involve using the company’s resources for purely private purposes (clearly an ethical breach – but perhaps less easily shown to be a legal one).

Indeed, it is precisely because a COI like this is so unpredictable – the Times story seemed to suggest that it was indeed something new under the sun – that it is potentially harmful. That is, when an unforeseeable COI emerges it raises the question: If the CEO is capable of doing this, what other mischief is he or she up to?

What this means  is that the  primary damage to the shareholders is not whatever costs can be directly traced back to timing corporate announcements for the personal benefit of a executive –  an exercise that  would likely be too speculative to be meaningful; and, even if the costs were measurable, they would likely end up being a small amount.  Rather, the harm flows from a general loss of trust by shareholders from learning that a CEO puts their interests second and – because a CEO can influence her company in so many ways – not being able to monitor all the avenues of possible betrayal that might exist.

Understanding that sort of more general harm is one of the important ways an ethical perspective can supplement a more narrow compliance-based one. And it is part of the reason that boards and senior executives need to understand the importance of truly operating pursuant with high ethical – as well as compliance-related – standards.

Finally, for those who’d like to read more related to this topic please see Scott Killingsworth’s excellent paper on C-Suite behavior, discussed and linked to in this earlier post

Supervising spouses and other family members in the workplace

A story earlier this week in the NY Daily News  reported:  “The doctor picked by [NYC] Mayor de Blasio to run the municipal hospital system was slapped with a conflict-of-interest ruling after his wife went to work for the hospital he was overseeing. The city Conflicts of Interest Board issued its ruling against [the doctor] in 2008, but allowed the arrangement to continue as long as [he] avoided matters involving his wife…”  The particulars of the case are not especially interesting, but it did serve to remind me that in the more than two years of its existence the COI Blog has yet to cover the often important issue of supervising family members at work.

But first a disclosure: my parents met in a workplace (the newsroom of the Minneapolis Tribune, in the 1940′s), where my father (then a night city editor) supervised my mother (then a police reporter) and, but for the personal relationship they formed there, I literally would not exist.  So, I have what could be called an existential bias on this issue.  On the other hand, at least judging by the classic film about journalists about that era – His Girl Friday – maybe workplace relationships weren’t  prominent on the ethical radar in the industry then, so perhaps I’ve over-disclosed (which comes with writing a COI blog, and for which my mother will hopefully forgive me).

But in the contemporary world, conflict-of-interest issues involving supervision of family members in the workplace can be among the most sensitive that a C&E officer ever faces.  Often one (and sometimes both) of the individuals involved is at a high level within the corporate hierarchy, making the issue as inviting to approach as a field of landmines.  Moreover, because of the strong loyalty instincts that people tend to have about their families, allegations about conflicts of this sort often trigger strong defensive reactions – as discussed in this earlier post  (which should be read mainly  for the immortal story about the late Mayor Daley’s saying – with respect to his having the city of Chicago do business with one of his children:  “If I can’t help my sons, then [my critics] can kiss my ass.”)

On the other hand, other employees may feel deeply resentful of those involved – particularly where the relatives in question are seen (rightly or wrongly) as receiving favored treatment and benefiting from job-related opportunities that otherwise might have gone to such other employees.  The others could also feel stifled in how they do their work.  For instance,  many employees might  be  uncomfortable criticizing a favorite business idea that the spouse of a senior executive has – even if they  think it is no good. Unlike most other COIs, those involving family members on the job tend to be very visible  - and grating, possible even on an everyday basis.

Not surprisingly,  many companies’ COI policies address the issue of supervision of family members.  A somewhat typical policy of this sort is the following from Tower Bank: “The potential for conflict of interest clearly exists if your spouse, partner or immediate family member also works at the Company and is in a direct reporting relationship with you. Officers or employees should not directly supervise, report to, or be in a position to influence the hiring, work assignments or evaluations of someone with whom they have a romantic or familial relationship.”

Of course, a direct reporting relationship between spouses is widely seen as being problematic – and that part of the rule should be easy to apply.  But the “being in a position to influence” part of the rule is much broader, and presumably anyone higher up in a reporting chain is in such a position regardless of how many layers there are in between.

Still, the more layers there are, the more checks against abuse exist – even if they are not strong checks (since they rely on subordinates in preventing and detecting conflicts by their workplace supervisors).  One company that relies explicitly on the number of such layers is United Technologies, whose policy asks the question, “[i]s it a Code of Ethics violation for my spouse and myself to work in the same department at our UTC Division?” and provides this answer: “In most instances this would not be a problem as long as neither employee reported to the other. A sufficient number of reporting levels (at least three) between supervisor and family member must exist to preclude conflict of interest issues.” While not a cure-all, this seems like a strong approach to me.

A final point: given the nature of this particular type of conflict the concern is often less actual COIs than apparent ones.  For this reason, effective mitigation must address the issue of what will employees think about a proposed solution to such a COI – including the broader question of whether such a solution will undermine the workforce’s view of management’s commitment to ethics in general.   More on apparent COIs can be found here, but the bottom line is that this is among the most difficult types of COI to mitigate.

Are private companies more ethical than public ones?

To those in the C&E field, the notion that privately held companies could, as a group, be more ethical than publicly held ones seems implausible.  After all, public companies are required by law to be transparent in ways that private ones are not – and are also required to have various compliance measures that are not mandated for the latter.  Moreover, at least based on anecdotal evidence, when companies go from public to private they tend to cut back on their C&E programs.

But that might not be the whole picture.  As mentioned in a post last week, research in a recently published paper  – “The Value of Corporate Culture,” by Luigi Guiso, Paulo Sapienza  and Luigi Zingales   -  found that public firms seem to have a greater difficultly in maintaining cultures of integrity than do private ones.  In that earlier post we focused not on that finding but what could be described as the “headline” story of that piece: that “high levels of perceived integrity are positively correlated with good outcomes, in terms of higher productivity, profitability, better industrial relations, and higher level of attractiveness to prospective job applicants.”   Today, we return to the article to consider what could be the cause(s) of the link between private ownership and ethical cultures – for which the authors offer three possible explanations.

First, they note that there could be greater integrity-related communications challenges facing a public company than a private one: “if a violation of internal norms is discovered in a public corporation, in deciding the punishment, the CEO has to send two signals: an internal one to the managers and employees that also serves as deterrent for future violations and an external one to the market that maintains transparency of internal procedures. The latter poses the risk of being (wrongly) interpreted by the market as the tip of an iceberg rather than an isolated episode, inducing the top manager to dilute the punishment and the internal message. These complications may weaken integrity norms in publicly traded companies vis-à-vis private firms.”

This is indeed an interesting possibility, and something that I’ve not heard before.  But the very fact that I have not heard it mentioned previously – in more than two decades of advising companies on C&E matters, attending C&E conferences  and otherwise keeping track of the field –  makes me somewhat skeptical about it.

Second, the authors note: “Public ownership…changes …the trade-off between the costs and benefits of strict integrity norms…  If… some assets are not considered (or underappreciated in the short term), public ownership creates a distortion in decision making…” They further argue that integrity may in fact be underappreciated in the market, so that “a CEO who allocates company resources to maximize the current stock market value of a company will tend to underinvest in integrity.”

Unlike the first explanation, this one seems virtually self-evident, given the absence of any meaningful indication (at least of which I am aware) that capital markets really give sufficient weight to integrity cultures.  Fortunately, the above-noted “headline” finding of the authors’ research  -  linking ethical cultures with profitability and other desirable business outcomes –  itself has the power to change that, at least if it becomes widely appreciated and further developed by practitioners and researchers.

Finally, they state: “public ownership comes with a separation between ownership and control and the CEOs of a public corporation are not always driven solely by shareholder value maximization, since they do not fully internalize the cost of deviating from value maximization.”   This, too, seems compelling to me.  It has  its roots in Adam Smith’s powerful insight that “[M]anagers of other people’s money [rarely] watch over it with the same anxious vigilance with which . . . [they] watch over their own,”  and is, of course, broadly consistent the notion of “moral hazard,” about which much has previously been written in this blog and elsewhere.  

So, for C&E professionals what is the import of these findings?

For those who work in/with public companies I think the overriding lesson is that the board needs to be involved to a meaningful extent with the C&E program.  That is because directors are generally far better able to resist the pernicious effect of short-terming thinking and “moral hazard” on a company’s integrity culture than is management. Of course, much has already been written about the need for strong board oversight of compliance.  But, having the relevant data from this paper should help some directors who are under-involved with C&E see the business case for stepping up their game.

Private companies, meanwhile,  should not get cocky.  While good news for them in a general sense, the paper doesn’t mean the pressure is off.   Indeed, the overwhelming percentage of companies punished under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines tend to be small    – and therefore (I assume, though can’t be totally sure) are mostly private.  Moreover, as discussed in this recent posting on the D&O Diary  (which was based on the results of the Chubb 2013 Private Company Risk Survey): “‘private companies increasingly are at risk of professional and management liability from a vast range of events, including costly lawsuits, governmental fines, data theft and other criminal activities’.”’