Ethics Lessons in Trump Tweets

Occasionally President Trump raises some thought-provoking points for ethics and compliance officers. Not the usual stupid stuff showcasing the ethical decay of the Trump Administration, mind you — but rather, genuinely relevant issues about corporate ethics and compliance programs, that don’t always have clear answers.

Trump did that twice this week, which is two times more than most weeks, so let’s take a look.

First came this tweet on Monday morning about Tiger Woods winning the Masters Tournament last weekend.

On one hand, Woods did accomplish something spectacular by winning the Masters: his first major tournament victory in 11 years, and a victory that came after Woods spent nearly a full decade in the professional and personal wilderness. Physical ailments, a broken marriage, tabloid coverage of infidelity, addiction to painkillers, a DUI arrest in 2017, loss of commercial sponsors — that’s a lot of suffering. Woods overcame all of it to do something extraordinary. So perhaps Trump wasn’t wrong to say Woods deserves special recognition for it.

On the other hand, the Presidential Medal of Freedom is the country’s highest civilian honor, and supposed to be awarded to people who “especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

Woods has not been a paragon of virtue over the years. He did philander with many women. He did abuse drugs. He did exercise poor judgment. He is certainly an inspiration to men over 40 whose knees and backs have seen better days, but it’s a stretch to say Woods has made especially meritorious contributions to significant public or private endeavors, other than sports TV ratings and tabloid news sales.

So maybe, some people have said, Woods doesn’t deserve the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Maybe this was just another impulsive decision from an impulsive president who likes hanging out with famous people, and has hung out with Woods on Florida golf courses many times.

At first I had no views on this issue because I don’t follow golf or Medal of Freedom honorees. Then I saw this from Roy Snell, former CEO of the Society of Corporate Compliance & Ethics, and now a fellow compliance pontificator on Twitter:

Snell puts his finger on the issue that Trump, consciously or not, teed up: At what point do we forgive people for past misconduct and welcome them back into the fold?

That’s a question corporate ethics thinkers need to consider. As society places higher and higher premiums on ethical conduct — especially for senior or high-performing executives, and we can put Woods in that category — we’ve tended to focus more on separating from currently bad actors. When do we focus on reuniting with previously bad actors, whose bad acting is behind them?

In our social media world, where every bit of conduct good or bad will follow people in an endless digital trail forever, while organizations will have a compulsion to avoid people with tainted ethical past — this question about redemption won’t go away. Companies will need policies about it. They’ll need a method of defending hiring decisions, including not hiring decisions.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I wouldn’t be thinking about it if President Trump hadn’t put the ball into play.

Ethics and Strategy Choices

Trump’s other accidentally interesting outburst also happened on Monday, as he speculated about Boeing’s troubles with the 737 MAX. As everyone knows by now, aviation regulators around the world have grounded the MAX after safety flaws in its software were implicated in two airline crashes that killed 346 people.

Boeing is struggling to update its software and get the MAX planes back to market. Then comes the question of whether any passengers will ever want to fly on a MAX plane anyway. So Trump offered this advice:

Let’s unpack the reputation harm Boeing is really facing here, and how ethical conduct (or the lack thereof) affects a company’s reputation.

First, people who travel extensively (including corporate compliance officers) will know that the MAX 737 is still the MAX 737, whatever new name Boeing might decide to give it. Anyone who believes changing the name will then change public attitudes about the plane is a fool. At least Trump admits that much (“what the hell do I know?”) in his tweet.

The real ethical fault here is this: Boeing did devise safety features for the MAX software to reduce the risk of uncontrollable crash, but it made those safety features only available at premium price. U.S. airlines like Southwest and American bought those safety features. Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines did not.

That is, Boeing made a choice. It could have included those safety features in all MAX aircraft as standard issue. It didn’t. It chose to put a profit-making opportunity first.

Business executives like to talk about strategy, but we sometimes forget what strategy really is. Strategy is about deciding to make some objectives more important than others. Strategy is about choosing, and as soon as you choose one thing, by definition you are not choosing other things.

So Boeing had the chance to choose maximum safety over profit-making opportunity. It chose the opposite. That says something about Boeing’s ethical priorities, something the flying public doesn’t like — and that’s true no matter how super-duper safe commercial aviation is. Rebranding the MAX won’t change that.

Now, did Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines also make a choice, to put cost savings above maximum safety? Yes. But a truly ethical business partner wouldn’t have offered that choice to Lion and Ethiopian in the first place.

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