Behavioral Ethics and Just-in-Time Compliance Communications

This is the third in a series of postings on “behavioral ethics and compliance.”  The initial post can be viewed here.

Timing is everything.  At least, that is part of the learning from several experiments described in a recent Harvard Business School Working Paper– “When to Sign on the Dotted Line: Signing First Makes Ethics Salient and Decreases Dishonest Self Reports” – by Lisa Shu and others.

Two of the experiments found that being asked to read (and in one case, sign) an honor code shortly before being presented with the opportunity and motivation to cheat significantly decreased the incidence of such cheating.  A third experiment found that asking drivers to sign an honesty pledge just prior to their making reports to an insurance company increased the likelihood of honest reporting.  The notion connecting these (and similar) experiments is that focusing individuals’ attention on pertinent ethical standards immediately  prior to their facing a chance to engage in wrongful activity increases the salience of such standards in a way that positively impacts their behavior.

These experiments can be seen as part of the mainstream of behavioral economics research, but there is a difference – and one that should be of keen interest to C&E professionals.  As described by the authors: “behavioral ethics recognizes the importance of non-conscious influences on (un)ethical behavior…our experiments have a preventive focus and identify subtle ways of raising the saliency of ethical standards.”  In other words, behavioral ethics research is expanding its reach from learning how various peculiarities in human thought can play an outsized role in causing wrongful conduct to bringing the same sort of analysis to bear on the prevention of unethical behavior.  

Compliance and ethics professionals should build on this knowledge by identifying other ways that behavioral ethics insights can be operationalized using C&E program tools.  (See this recent post proposing several ways to do this with conflict-of-interest compliance measures.)

For instance, while the act of signing itself can play an important role in promoting ethics, there are other ways to raise the saliency of ethical standards with an outsized impact.  The key seems to be doing so just prior to the moment of ethical risk.  This, in turn, suggests that much can be gained by deploying “just-in-time” C&E communications.

Just-in-time C&E communications have, in some ways, been around for a long time but only to a very limited degree.  Opportunities for new or enhanced just-in-time communications exist for many C&E areas including (but definitely not limited to):  anti-corruption – before interactions with government officials and third-party intermediaries;  competition law – before meetings with competitors  (e.g., at trade association events);  insider trading/Reg FD – during key transactions, before preparing earnings reports;  protection of confidential information – when receiving such information from third parties pursuant to an NDA;  conflicts of interest – around procurement decisions;  accuracy of sales/marketing – in connection with developing advertising, making pitches; and employment law – while conducting performance reviews.

There are indeed a great many others, and I encourage readers of the Blog to post their own ideas on just-in-time C&E communications in the comments section.

In our next post – how to use behavioral ethics in C&E risk assessments.

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