More on Boeing and Business Ethics

The more you consider Boeing’s mishandling of its trouble with the 737 MAX jet, the more lessons ethics and compliance professionals can tease out. This weekend I spent time pondering what Boeing’s decisions about safety software for the MAX say about the company’s supposed commitment to an ethical corporate culture. That led to this small tweetstorm over the weekend. Take a look, and then I have further thoughts below.

Answering Questions of Ethics and Duty

I’m not quite sure how best to respond to a challenge like this. An ethics and compliance officer’s job is mostly about embedding ethical awareness into employees’ routines and behaviors — by force of rules, technology, internal controls, and disciplinary policy if necessary; but fundamentally, the job is about forcing patterns of behavior.

The conundrum exemplified by Boeing and the MAX jet is different. This is about senior executives’ commitment to ethics as they develop strategy. I don’t know the proper way for ethics and compliance officers to inculcate that commitment into the executive mind if it’s not there already.

For example, are ethics and compliance officers really going to train senior executives — people far above their pay grade — about how to make strategic decisions? That seems a bit presumptuous, especially since most senior executives and board directors will believe they know more about strategic decision-making than you. In many cases, they’ll be right.

Moreover, what are an organization’s ethical duties when making strategic decisions? At what point do we move from ethics training to a philosophy class?

I keep circling back to my 10th tweet above: that Boeing’s poor ethical decision about its override software created the opportunity for Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines to make their own poor ethical choices about passenger safety.

Was it truly Boeing’s responsibility to prevent that? Or did Boeing satisfy its ethical obligations by laying out all possible choices, including the unsafe ones, and letting the its airline customers make the poor ethical choice? (Let’s also be clear: Ethiopian and Lion did make the poor ethical choice.)

We stray into fuzzy territory here, somewhere between a compliance training course and a John Rawls textbook or an episode of The Good Place. All of it strikes me as a difficult subject for compliance officers to raise at your quarterly meeting with the board.

Regardless, that breakdown of ethical commitment in business strategy is what happened with Boeing. The statements I made above are accurate, and fair to make. Such colossal blunders — the ones that ruin millions of dollars in business investment, or cost people’s lives, or sour corporate reputation for years to come — this is where those blunders start. With murky questions about who is responsible for how much ethical duty, and whether that duty could be passed to another party.

Where do we go from here? I don’t know. Right now we’re stuck on the ethical tarmac, and I’m not sure when we’ll start moving forward again.

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