Decisions must be based on ethical, not legal tests

If a lawyer tells you to focus on ethics rather than the letter of the law, you would do well to listen.

If a lawyer tells you to focus on ethics rather than the letter of the law, you would do well to listen.

Bart Schwartz, a former US prosecutor and the attorney charged by Hewlett-Packard to look into its recent board and media investigations, told a New York Times reporter last week that "doing it legally should not be the test; that is the given. You have to ask what is appropriate and ethical."

Companies have done a lot to prevent their employees from acting illegally, but it is less clear what they are doing to avoid falling victim to gray areas. And yet the one standard test that is easily comprehended by most people is this: If a story about what you are doing appeared on the front of The New York Times, what would be the impact?
Decisions have to stand up to the bright light of scrutiny before they are made, or they should be reconsidered - that's obvious. Less clear is how to train people on a day-to-day level to exercise that judgment and to be honest about how the decisions they make may put the company and its reputation at risk.

It would be facile to say, simply, that PR professionals need to ensure that they are part of the conversations when decisions are made. That works fine with big issues, but employees take actions on a daily basis that might compromise the company. How can communications prevent that from happening?

Sometimes the PR industry can be a little too glib in reducing these complex issues down to aphorisms and generalizations. In fact, it is incredibly difficult to stand up and challenge one's organization to second guess its decisions with a view to ensuring ethical standards are met, above and beyond the legality.

But it shouldn't take a lawyer to point out that the questions need to be asked.

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