Candid: Confessions of a benefits manager

Candid tackles a US-originated directive that unleashes an entire armoury of HR weapons, including firearms guidelines

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Ethics isn’t something I automatically associate with business, particularly not this one. I may be ethically challenged, but I thought the term was about significant life or death decisions like euthanasia and human cloning. So, I am rather alarmed that someone in corporate headquarters has written a special policy on the subject. Even more worrying is the Highest Being (our president) has now given this top priority. I can’t help wondering if he has read rather more than necessary into the existing termination policy.

It has been decreed that every man, woman and child shall be trained in corporate ethics by the end of the month. Higher beings (our management team) are, however, excluded from this activity. I wonder if this means that they are beyond reproach or beyond help.

I would normally be quite content to leave company ethics for someone else to worry about, but unfortunately, given the extent of the training required, even the benefits team is required to help with presentations. It is all hands on deck, or at least all fingers on flipcharts. If there is one thing you can say about the HR department: when we get a task, we get on and tick that box. We certainly don’t stop to ask why.

I’ve taken a look at the policy. It is very silly. There are fifty pages, at least, of well-meaning but completely incomprehensible guidelines. The main problem is that it has been written in America. That, in itself, is understandable; after all, the company was founded there. The problem is that no attempt has been made to make it workable on a global basis. I can feel a sense of dread washing over me at the thought of having to explain the inexplicable to a room full of the indifferent. It’s no good, I have to say something. I ask Big Bad Boss if we can modify it a little; if we can Europeanise the detail the way we do with other policies. Apparently not. There is only one moral code and only one way to do business. The right way is the American way. Period.

My task is to explain all this to the regional sales team. Wish me luck. It is hard enough to get them into a room at the same time. As soon as the last two arrive, fifteen minutes late, another two dash out of the room clutching their mobiles. Nevertheless, we get going, starting with ‘Conflicts of interest’. That doesn’t go down too badly. The first example given is about procurement and my sales guys all nod along happily that purchasing decisions should not be influenced by personal factors, and they agree that buying company goods from a family member might not be the best decision for the company. However, when the example turns to sales, and whether or not it would be ethical to sell to a family member at a discount, the debate gets rather heated. They argue that surely any sale is better than no sale. They point out that we give discounts to all sorts of customers. Have you ever tried to disagree with someone trained to negotiate? I try to keep calm and move on.

Fortunately the next topic, export controls, is less emotive and they all settle down. Although the issue is particularly relevant for this group, they are quite happy to assume that someone somewhere has taken care of all the licensing issues. I hope they are right.

I think I have restored peace, when we get to the section on ‘Use of company resources’. But that’s when it gets a bit surreal. There, in black and white, our Ethics policy has decreed that it is not permissible to keep a gun in a company car or even in a personal car parked at a company location. Come again? No guns are allowed at work, it is official. I remind the now hysterical group that the policy has been written in America. In Texas. People do carry guns there; they just don’t carry them while they are on company property.

I know I’m losing all credibility, and it is going to get a lot worse; the next topic is ‘Giving and receiving gifts’. Apparently, my company doesn’t buy business?‚?„?? ever. Now, I’m not directly involved with sales, but I do know what goes on. I see the customer golf days, the sponsored events, the corporate hospitality, and these are all organised from a very high level. And now I have to tell our sales team they are not allowed to take their customers out to lunch? The protests come at me from all sides. The best I can do to restore order in the room, is to point out the get-out clause: as long as there is no direct or apparent connection with a specific transaction or negotiation, certain courtesies might be acceptable. Phew.

If in doubt on any matter of ethics, I tell them, they can check with the Ethics Committee. We turn to the list of executives making up this noble body. It reads like a list of wanted criminals who have about as much integrity as Bill Sykes. It includes the Business Development guy who left to set up his own company then sold it back to us. And then there is the Legal guy, who when he fell out with the secretary he had been having an affair with, made her redundant, and immediately filled the role with his next conquest. And that’s just the stuff I know about. I can feel the tension in the room dissipate. With a bunch of gangsters as Ethics police, there are not likely to be many arrests.

Next time…Candid declutters her email.