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Has your compliance program ‘evolved’ beyond ethics?

Though in the aggregate the increase in modern differentiation and complexity has been a boon to humankind, it is perhaps helpful (or at least practical) to view these developments as evolutionary processes without telos.

In this sense too, it could be beneficial to observe corporations empirically as differentiated, self-generating, and closed systems of communication, i.e. subsystems that exist within the larger system/environment of society. (For simplicity’s sake here the terms system and subsystem will be used interchangeably.)

From this perspective, no matter how much corporations “talk” about ethical behavior, it remains of concern only to the extent to which it is observed — by the entity or system itself and not its employees necessarily — as a threat to, or at the least an impact on, the entity’s survival.

The literature on corruption has shown that an outside perspective can help people make more ethical decisions and under the terms here one should view the legal and political systems as the outsiders. Compliance programs then can be viewed as a form of structural coupling between these closed systems.

The academy certainly has said much about this, but also from the vantage of art/entertainment, one can see society has been grappling with the evolutionary implications of these various creatures for some time.

Watching the classic 1979 movie Alien for example, one cannot fail to notice the crew is expendable at the behest of an interstellar corporation in search of another (albeit living) “perfect organism” that has evolved only to survive, without the burden of morality or ethics. Perhaps the corporation here is trying to observe itself, or observe what it would be like if it were alive. But the point is easily enough taken that this horror and science-fiction film can be viewed as a description of systemic compliance failure. The failure to follow proper medical quarantine procedure is only the most immediate and fatal to the crew.

The android Ash can be viewed as the “bad apple” here of course, a psychopathic personality. Sadly for the individuals caught up in this system (an environment from their perspective), Ash is coterminous with the decision makers of the corporation, who have little regard for the risk posed by their decisions to others. The entity might be said to observe these decisions (made by individuals yes but within the organizational system) as risk management.

Unknown threats must be quantified in a wild universe. Perhaps the future here involves a fairly unregulated environment, where the corporation has largely captured the political system, and this is obviously suggested by the film. Tellingly, the future depicted here is closer to our own past; when the film was released, the FCPA was also in its infancy.

Ultimately, films such as Alien (and there is a rich tradition here) beg the question of modernity and its associated risks, but a question which specifically from the risk perspective is paradoxically impossible to answer, yet for compliance professionals still worth asking: 

What am I not paying attention to now that will become of awesome significance later?


William N. Weaver, pictured above, received a B.A. in Communication from the University of Pennsylvania before later earning a J.D. from Campbell University law school in Raleigh, NC. He currently works as a compliance analyst for U.S. Bank. The views expressed are his own, and not the views of his employer. He can be contacted here

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  1. I wish you and/or other writers would elaborate on this crucial topic of "Ethical Entities" that can comply from within. Wouldn't it be nice to bridge the disconnect between inherent ethical processes and the rigid, somewhat intimidating compliance mechanics?

  2. Compliance programs then can be viewed as a form of structural coupling between these closed systems.

  3. While "mechanics" of ethics can be burdensome, I feel and see what I believe may be a cyclical shift away from a "natural" interest in the integration of ethical standards in regular business activity. My concern isn't because of intimidating mechanics or even hostile resistance, although pockets of this variety exist. Rather I see a decided determination to adapt to "modern" methods of business, and those considerations take precedence or priority. I think the way to clarify this concern is captured in the question, "When confronted with a decision that has far-reaching implications, what is your first thought?" Absent a natural inclination to ethical standards of conduct, there is room for improvement.

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