It’s the chicken-and-egg dilemma in the ethics business: does confidentiality breed cover-ups (and therefore allow misconduct), or does it work as the unseen hand of justice? Just last week the General Accountability Project (GAP), the non-profit whistleblower advocacy organization, posted a blog concerning the corruption problems at World Bank and how confidentiality can be used to cover up said corruption without some form of incident management that includes follow-up and disclosure. The basic connotation is that those with “privileges” or who had some form of insider information can use the cloak of confidentiality to sweep the misconduct under the proverbial rug. Unless, of course, there is a viable, accessible and fully disclosed fraud prevention method by which to manage any incident report that is taken confidentially.
It seems forever ago even though it’s been less than 10 years since SOX mandated anonymous ethics hotlines for public companies, and now of course the Dodd-Frank Act has substantiated that legislation. Companies who believed their ethics to be strong and of good standing applauded Sox and Dodd-Frank. After all, they realized that granting their employees a way to report suspect behavior was empowering. However, some companies chose to place their ethical code of conduct and communication regarding their ethics hotline behind a closed, semi-locked door. Those whom we might regard as unethical even went (and still go) so far as to openly discourage any indirect reporting. That’s what management is for, they say, or HR or their ombudsman, etc.
But if you have nothing to hide, why the ‘cloak of confidentiality’ and ‘locked-door hotline’ mentality? Is it the old “fear of the ethics police” argument? Granted, there is always a grey area in ethics, and all too often objectivity wrongly trumps subjectivity. Still, if your incident management process allows for some form of follow-up communication and open reporting, the whole notion of confidentiality will be a moot point.