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The Compliance Library: Latest books show the way to better ethical decision making

Richard Bistrong | February 6, 2018

Before entering the Federal Bureau of Prisons facility in Lewisburg PA in July 2012, I thought about how I was going to spend my fourteen and a half months of incarceration in a way that would keep me busy, focused, and healthy. One way I realized those goals was through my work as a GED (high school equivalency) and ESL (English as a Second Language) instructor. The other was by reading a lot, beating my pre-prison goal of reading a book a week. As to those books, I ended up finishing sixty-five books in sixty-two weeks, focusing on history, politics, social media/public relations, as well as resource material to help me be a better tutor.

In the prison system, there’s an e-mail portal. It’s not the internet—e-mail only, and it’s slow and expensive, but it does work. And each inmate is allowed to have up to 30 people on their e-mail list. So, what I started doing was sending to all 30 recipients my book reviews, about every five books or so, as a group e-mail blast. It was a good exercise for me, as setting out to do those reviews made me read the books more carefully than I might have otherwise, taking careful chapter and summary notes. It also gave me something to do requiring mental focus and discipline, to move the day along, and it didn’t require anyone or anything else. That’s always a good thing when you are in prison, as trouble tends to come in groups. When this practice started, some family members joked for me to stop, as possibly distracting my e-mail recipients, who had better things to do than read “reviews from the lockup.”

But then something happened. E-mail recipients, friends and family alike, started to thank me. Sometimes it was over finding a gift for someone and then settling on it after reading one of my reviews, or even making a purchase for their own consumption. What had begun as good-spirited ribbing turned into “keep it up” and “don’t stop.”

Not everybody has the time to read, but I have found that people enjoy getting a sense of what they should be reading. So, in that spirit I’m sharing the insights from my own reading experience in the hopes that what fills my own compliance library might give you some ideas for what to volumes to add to your own. After all, life is too short to spend it reading bad books.

To begin, I am going to reflect on two books that I consider to be absolutely foundational to any compliance professional, Giving Voice to Values, by Mary Gentile (also a 2017 Compliance Week Top Mind), and Blind Spots, by Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel.

In future installments, I hope to cover some of the many other worthwhile books that relate to our compliance works and world, as well as the occasional random one that might not be directly related to compliance itself, but is the kind of read that compliance professionals might find particularly interesting. Every now and then I hope to catch us all off guard.

With that, on to the reviews. Happy reading!

Giving Voice to Values:

How to Speak your Mind When You Know What’s Right

by Mary C. Gentile, Ph.D | 2012, Yale University Press

As I often share in my corporate work, the tension between the pressure to succeed and the pressure to comply is a normal part of any organizational design. It’s an inherent conduct vulnerability in any corporation, especially in those that want to grow new markets, and with new products. But how that tension gets addressed can either distort or amplify how we live up to our own values in what might be real-world situations of ethical distress or confusion. As Mary Gentile shares, we all harbor rationalizations, assumptions, and subtle biases that might come into play during those moments of choice, but the good news is that we don’t have to chance it. In my four years of corporate work, I have seen few surprises. Even if we look at our enforcement news feeds, many of the moments of peril were in regions and situations that we have seen before. So why not embrace Gentile’s challenge to rehearse those scenarios in advance, “in front of peers who stand in for proxies” with whom we might engage with around the globe, and exercise “preemptive rationalization.”

I can’t share enough the value of such exercises. Figuring out risk while one is in the middle of it—such as facing a friend, colleague, or channel partner who might make an unethical request on the spot—can cause an almost involuntary response to take the path of least resistance, to not offend. And that might block our path to living up to our own values. But preparing for those inevitable moments—in rehearsing, role-modeling, and brain-storming exchanges where we can be both polite and firm—can give the workforce “go-to” scenarios at the worst moment in time, where someone is jet-lagged, sleep-deprived, struggling with commercial objectives, and facing a decision.

As I often share with compliance leaders, quoting Gentile, "the very act of recognizing and naming the argument can reduce its power because it's no longer unconscious or assumed; we have made it discussable."

As Gentile tasks us, let’s disable the “effect of surprise” and normalize and diffuse those moments “in a less alarmist and emotional manner,” as to prepare for when that inevitable critical conversation arises. That way, we can, in Gentile’s words, “thereby identify, in advance, the kinds of arguments that will enable us to calmly and effectively respond to the situation and voice our values in the most easily understood and accepted forms.” It moves us from a “thou shall not” to a more proactive and engaged model, where we act on our personal and corporate “sense of purpose.” It also transports us from the too-often heard “if I don’t do this someone else will” excuse to the world of the possible, of alternatives, where a sense of purpose can inspire us to make the right call in the face of an inevitable challenge to our values.

As I often share with compliance leaders, quoting Gentile, “the very act of recognizing and naming the argument can reduce its power because it’s no longer unconscious or assumed; we have made it discussable.” As we all probably spend some time worrying about if what we expect to be happening is actually happening, a read of GVV will go a long way to closing that breach.

Blind Spots:

Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do About It

by Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel | 2012, Princeton University Press

As to some of those subtle and not-so-subtle forces on our decision making, that’s where Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel come into our world with Blind Spots. Here, they aim to alert us to the conditions “that prevent us all from seeing the gap between our own actual behavior and our desired behavior,” focusing “on factors outside our awareness.” Bazerman and Tenbrunsel want to bring us on a journey to look at factors that prevent us from meeting our own ethical standards. As the authors share, “without an awareness of blind spots, traditional approaches to ethics won’t be particularly useful in improving behavior.”

The book is a behavioral treasure trove of those forces, including elements like “overly discounting the future” and “recollection biases,” all of which can allow “ethical numbness” to set in and to let our decisions to become “less ethically painful.” As the authors share, and this is something I echo in my own work, “the primary danger of compliance systems lies in their contortion of the decision-making process. Suddenly, instead of doing the right thing, employees focus on calculating the costs and benefits of compliance and non-compliance,” unaware of “what ethical implications might arise from this decision.” Blind Spots unearths those behavioral traps, giving us an opportunity to ponder if our compliance programs and initiatives impact those mindsets in a way that moves us from uncertainty to inspiration.

None of this is easy to put into practice, especially as the authors challenge us to look into our own biases, to ask “how could this happen to me,” as to better understand the forces which face our workforce. So, I might recommend reading these books in reverse order of my reviews. Start with Blind Spots, and see which of these behavioral dynamics might be more relevant to your workforce, depending on role, market, and region, and then pivot to GVV to unpack, rehearse, and share those rationalizations as a team, to reduce their power, and to open up the “world of the possible.” Read together, these books provide a great foundation through knowledge, practice, and learning, about how we can all live up to our standards of professional and personal integrity.

Do you have a book in your compliance library that you think is required reading? Let us know at editor@complianceweek.com.