Ethics on the spot: the Clinton/Lynch encounter

Perhaps the most interesting recent conflict of interest story in the US concerns the unfortunate impromptu meeting between Bill Clinton and Attorney General Loretta Lynch last week on the tarmac of an airport in Phoenix, when he – learning that she was nearby – boarded her plane to chat. Lynch has denied that there was any discussion between them of the Justice Department investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email use and both women have expressed regret from an appearance perspective that the meeting occurred at all.

As with most other postings in this blog arising from cases in the news, I’m less interested in faulting the individuals involved than in considering whether there is a broader lesson that C&E professionals can draw from these events. In particular, my interest is in what might be learned from Lynch’s involvement since, by all accounts of which I’m aware, she is highly ethical. (The same cannot be said about Bill Clinton.)

For me, the most useful learning here comes from the circumstances of the case – which, according to everything I’ve read about it, really did involve a chance encounter, at least from Lynch’s perspective. Of course, the particular circumstances are highly unusual, but viewed broadly, this sort of situation – meaning one where an individual must make an on-the-spot ethical decision with little time for reflection – is not at all uncommon. Among other settings, it can come up when an employee must decide whether to approve a questionable payment that is described by her boss as urgent, is given sensitive information  by a competitor on an unsolicited basis or is asked by senior sales personnel to confirm to a prospective customer things that aren’t true.

When these or other ethical tests present themselves with little or no warning, the best protection for the individual being tested could be having strong ethical instincts. Simply recalling what company policies are may not be enough to do the trick.

However, such instincts cannot be summoned on command. Rather, they must evolve and be sustained over time. And for this companies (and other organizations, including governmental agencies) generally need strong – and culture-based – C&E programs. Indeed, one of the core goals of a culture-based C&E program should be having ethics operate on an instinct-like level.

Of course, one could argue that some forms of wrongdoing trigger instinctive revulsion in most people, without the need for C&E assistance. In the three examples described above, the one about lying to a prospective customer is most likely to do this, since honesty has been a core human value for millennia. The picture is somewhat less clear with the antitrust example – as accepted standards of conduct there are of much more recent vintage than are honesty-based expectations. Corruption – which was both prohibited and widely accepted for many centuries – probably lies somewhere between these two. But, for all of these and other forms of wrongdoing a strong ethical culture should increase the odds of any employee making the right decision when faced with an unexpected, high-stakes choice.

And what about the type of wrongdoing at issue in the Clinton-Lynch meeting which (assuming they did not in fact talk about the email investigation) should be seen as creating the appearance, if not the substance, of a COI? While COIs themselves have been seen as wrong since the time of the Bible (man cannot serve two masters), appearances of such are less likely to have reached the point where they trigger instinct-like negative responses. Thus, having strong ethical cultures may be necessary to reduce risks of this sort too.

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