ARTICLE DETAIL

October 19, 2017

Deciding Not To Look Away: Ethics v. Compliance

By:  Patricia McHugh Lambert, Esquire

For most of us, we do not get into trouble for intentionally doing something wrong.  We do not steal. We do not commit fraud.  We do not hurt people on purpose.  But, if we are truthful with ourselves, we have sometimes looked away and then backed away when we saw someone else doing something that troubled us.

Troublesome acts are often ordinary.  A businessman looks away when he sees a friend drinking too much even though he knows the friend will be driving home; the businessman justifies the failure to do nothing because the friend is not falling down drunk.  A business owner hears an employee speaking in a way that is unprofessional, harsh, disrespectful or even racist—and says nothing because no one within hearing distance seems too troubled by what was said.  A client suggests that he is skirting rules and no follow up questions are asked because, frankly, the professional prefers to stay in ignorance. But looking away is not wise.

Looking away–not dealing with bad behavior– topples kingdoms, business and careers. Ben Affleck and others who allegedly knew of Harvey Weinstein’s bad behavior but did nothing now are under siege.  Dianne Brandi, the general counsel of Fox News, is being sued for failing to investigate allegations of sexual harassment involving Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly.  Employees who are ignored after they file internal complaints are now reporting bad behavior to the Securities and Exchange Commission and other licensing authorities—and often receiving millions in whistleblower awards.

Perhaps more importantly, we, as professionals, have to decide where we stand on business ethics.   Of course, insurance professionals must be legally compliant.  Compliance is obeying the law, even with those laws we do not agree with, because the government is making us do that. Ethics means “doing the right thing” even when it is inconvenient or hard to do so.  We, as insurance professionals, should want to be known as ethical and not merely compliant.

Ethical behavior starts at the top and requires constant scrutiny.  If a business pushes the outer limits of the law, the business may be compliant but is it doing “the right thing”?  Should a business be satisfied with only doing what is legally required, but failing to treat employees with respect?  Should business policies dealing with monetary, privacy and other issues be forward thinking or merely only do what the law presently requires? Or, should the business and the individual have an ethical code to do what is right?  The answer should be clear.  We should be ethical and not merely compliant.

We should act ethically because we have a strong conviction for doing what is right—even if the reason for this conviction is based on economic issues such as brand protection or risk avoidance.  Interestingly, the difference between compliance and ethics is recognized in recent Federal Sentencing Guidelines amendments that encourage the fostering of an ethical culture.  More importantly, looking the other way—even if it is legal to do so—can get you sued for bad behavior and can certainly get you in the news.

Regardless of whether we are talking about ethics or compliance, the fast decision is oftentimes the wrong decision. The easy decision—which is made without reference to laws, regulations or what is forward thinking–is usually the wrong decision. A decision that only fixes a problem for the moment can very well be the wrong decision.  When we make hard decisions, we are investing in our future by protecting our personal brand, our professional reputation and, ultimately, our professional licenses.

 Deciding not to look away feels right for a few short moments.  Making an ethical decision can certainly be painful at the moment the decision is made.  But living with that temporary uncomfortableness can keep you out of trouble.  Doing the right thing feels right for a lifetime.

Patricia McHughLambert has over 35 years of experience in handling complex commercial litigation and insurance matters. Ms. Lambert has worked on national class actions, significant litigation and regulatory matters for Fortune 500 companies. She has also assisted small and mid-sized companies and business executives with contract, real estate and commercial disputes that needed to be resolved quickly and efficiently. Ms. Lambert is best known as an attorney who knows the field of insurance. She has represented insurers, policyholders, and insurance producers in disputes both in court and before the Maryland Insurance Administration.  Ms. Lambert can be contacted at 410-339-6759and plambert@pklaw.com.