Umberto Eco spoke several times on the perverse effects of the democratization of the public discourse under the influence of social media (Facebook in particular). According to him, this open space where everybody can publish his/her opinions, no matter if he/she is able to articulate it in a logic manner, or has the ability to use proper grammar, or understands the processes or phenomena he/she addresses, presents multiple opportunities for fools and buffoons to be una portavoce (1. spokesperson, 2. speaking tube, 3. megaphone) for legitimate ideas. And because their voice is carried to longer distances and reaches far greater audiences, the fools and buffoons are commonly mistaken for experts and virtuous people.
The reality is that not only fools and buffoons get to be mistaken for experts and virtuous people, but also ex-cons. Imagine a guy with an impeccable suit and tie, speaking in front of a camera on how a company should protect itself from rogue employees or what it is involved in a foreign bribery case. And add to this a series of people with good reputation who are ready to answer to this guy’s questions in front of the camera, promoting integrity in the business sector. Now, how would you feel if you would learn that this guy is actually an ex-con converted to the new religion of “Anti-Corruption and Compliance”?
How would you feel if this guy, still serving his last year of his sentence, or not, would be endorsed by two famous Business Ethics professors? Or by the president of one of the largest societies of Ethics & Compliance professionals? Or if this guy would write an op-ed every week, gathering around him cohorts of professionals that do not really know who he is?
Would you readily hire this guy as a consultant and listen to his advice?
Of course, everybody deserves a second-chance and, once he served his sentence, his debt to society is already paid. But I am not talking about this. My case is not about discriminating this ‘poor guy’, in a moral and legal sense, but discriminating between situations, as a criterion of professional decision-making. My case is about crediting a convicted person with sufficient legitimacy and professional ethical stature to advise on business integrity, on organisational practices meant to secure the organisation from future incidents. And I wonder if he can be credited with such legitimacy and professional ethical stature.
In management consulting, one professional standard refers to the integrity of the consultant. The person in-charge of a consulting project shall, according to specific community norms, demonstrate integrity both in the workplace and in all personal aspects of his/her life. A man like the one I am talking about fails the test of this professional standard. His/her ethical stature is considerably damaged by his former conviction.
In some respect, it is like hiring a former hacker to protect your digital infrastructure. He has the skills necessary to do the job, but how high is the risk? He has the level of professional understanding and individual awareness to grasp the consequences of his previous behaviour, but what would this say about your organisation, about you? Would others feel like you have hired the Wolf from the Wall-Street to help you build similar aggressive sales strategies? Would this make others think you act as a wolf in sheep’s clothing?
Discussing with a friend, she made one important point about this guy’s aggressive marketing practices on LinkedIn, on Twitter, on his personal blog, at conferences and in masterclasses, and on his video-channel. She said this is a good tactic to make search-engines show less about his conviction in the first 4-7 pages of results; to have control over what people learn about you from the Internet. In other words, it is a good practice to window-dress your reputation as a consultant. And I have no doubt this guy knows pretty well why he is doing all this.
If you look for his name on Google or Bing, the only 1st-page entries that reveals his conviction are two articles from Wall Street Journal: “How a Former Executive Went Undercover for Prosecutors” and “Co-operator Gets 18 Months in Complicated Bribery Case”. And in one of these, you will find the following sentence: “[X], who cried as he addressed the court, said that he was a changed man and the sentencing marked the final chapter in a “sad and ugly book” in his life.” His conversion to the new religion of “Anti-Corruption and Compliance” makes much more sense now, right? He is “a changed man” after being sentence to 18 months in prison in 2012. Four years later, he is one of the famous (*mostly online) preachers of the new religion.
In this context, when other professionals holding high-positions in this community endorse this guy, any ethical ecology of the community becomes impossible. Who has the best insight in the field of foreign bribery?! Of course, I am talking about a person that understands the theoretical and practical intricacies of the subject and also has first-hand experience with it. Joking or not, soon it will become mandatory to pay a bribe in order to be considered competent to talk on this topic.
Now, some will say that his case is one good example to make people think twice about paying a bribe or adopting an illegal or immoral business practice in general. But is it? It may be interesting to hear him talk, but his voice or charisma are not sufficient to make people think twice. Strong internal control mechanisms, constant training on Ethics & Compliance, shadowing mechanisms, etc. are more likely to make a difference. If we consider the case of foreign bribery, for example, in international business relations, the stakes are so high that most of those involved in contract negotiations are most likely to practice a sort of moral blindness, to use a double measure to rationalize their behaviour and secure the company’s margin, to overlook that there are consequences even if your actions are taken on foreign soil. Moreover, it is one thing to hear the guy at a conference and another thing to pay his services as an Ethics & Compliance consultant.
Our professional community needs to find its voice if we really care about our reputation. Otherwise, we risk being part of a community where the strong voice belongs to fools and buffoons.