Communications case study: Responding to a CEO’s potentially unethical demands

By IABCLA President Deborah Hudson

Ethics. My thoughts about ethics are pretty simple and direct. I have a strong moral bent and can tell the difference between right and wrong. When I encounter ethical issues I quickly find a clear, specific response. I thought that covered the bases.

But IABCLA colleague Cheryl Farrell opened my eyes. When we met with a handful of other members to dine and discuss “Communications Ethics in the era of ‘alternative facts,’” she said, “I think there’s always an ethical issue. Whenever human beings are involved, there’s conflict.”

And the discussion proved her point.

Case study: A CEO’s demand for employee names

Cheryl posed a case study based loosely on the changing fortunes of a communications giant: massive layoffs, followed by the CEO’s resignation and conviction on fraud. Employees faced insecurity, a loss of control and disillusionment in a corporation that they were once proud of.

The new CEO introduced himself and his new direction during a town hall, but was surprised by tough and confrontational questioning from employees.  The CEO shut down discussion, then demanded the names of questioners from the Communications department.

What is the ethical response?

5 responses to questionable ethics from the CEO

It turns out that everyone at the table that night had a different ethical resolution:

1: Build the CEO’s connections with the employees

One said, “I’d agree and set up a lunch for the CEO to sit down and talk to the employees whose names he asked for so he could get beyond the bitterness and see their sense of ownership and engagement.”

2: Advise the CEO on legal issues

Another suggested that it might be time to consult Compliance and would be important to counsel the CEO about legal protections for whistleblowers.

3: Advise the CEO to listen more before acting

A third suggested reframing the demand in communications terms – pointing to other CEO communications transitions – suggesting taking the high road of listening before launching new plans.

4: Ask the CEO why he wanted the names

Another person at the table suggested asking the CEO why he was asking for names in order to understand his intentions and try to speak to his underlying needs.

5: Wait

After tempers cool, ask the CEO how he wants to respond to the questions at the town hall.

Hearing the different approaches broadened everyone’s perspective. For me, it was a profound learning moment in the complexity of ethics: there’s more than one right answer.

Internal communicators: Holding the middle ground

All of these responses speak to the role of internal communicators today: We sit on this shaky ground between employees and executives, trying to serve both while ensuring ethical behavior and doing what’s best for the business.

A strong ethical foundation can make the internal communicator’s in-between ground more firm, but it doesn’t make these types of challenges any easier.

Based on the responses from peers around the table I see a simple checklist for those moments when we need to engage with an executive around an ethically challenging demand:

  1. Do your research on the legal implications
  2. Ask the executive why he’s made the demand
  3. Look for a way to show the human side of the issue
  4. Find a way to help the executive listen more to employees
  5. Help the executive connect with employees

This simple checklist can turn an ethical perspective into actionable next steps. Responding quickly from an ethical center is more important than ever In these days of “alternative facts,” viral videos and rushed judgments.

Employees and executives both need us.

So, if you were facing the situation in this case study, what would you do?

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