How an internal investigation to identify leaks from its board of
directors to business reporters grew into something far wider - and
perhaps illegal - at Hewlett-Packard will be subject matter for
writers and college professors for years to come. But it should
also be a cautionary tale for learning professionals. Often, the
responsibility of identifying and then correcting deficiencies in
an organization's ethics falls on the learning executive, even if
she has no contact with the board. When the boardroom putsch or
C-level housecleaning comes to your organization, you can bet that
the learning function will be in the hot seat to make changes that
may roll all the way back into the boardroom.
Why do these lapses in common sense continue to occur in Corporate
America? "It stems from the culture of an organization, and
changing the culture of an organization is never easy," explains
Lynn Lieber, founder and CEO, Workplace Answers, a provider of HR,
financial and ethics compliance training courses. "Culture is
something that is often innate. One person can step outside the
corporate culture or their code of ethics and that might be an
aberration. You might say that person was a 'bad acter' and that
they were acting on their own.
"But when you have something like the HP situation you have to ask
'How is it that you can have so many people participating in the
wrong-doing?' From what I have seen from working with organizations
on ethical issues, it's the culture that somehow tacitly allows it
But with the end result often being jail, why would a corporate
executive even contemplate taking these kinds of risks?
"It's unbelievable some of the things people do," notes Lieber.
"They feel like they will get away with it or that they will be
protected by the organization. There is often an arrogance at the
top of big organizations that comes with power and privilege. They
think they are untouchable to some degree.
"I find often that even in organizations where you have very good
policies, procedures, and training programs, the upper echelon of
the company feels like it doesn't have to attend [that training].
The executives think they know everything about it, and that is a
big misconception. Because, obviously, they don't."
A simpler explanation
For others, the reasons an organization would engage in such
activity are simpler.
"When you ask why ethics problems continue to plague corporations,
the answer is very simple: greed." That's the view of David Robins,
a retired Hewlett-Packard learning manager. But Robins explains
that what happened in the boardroom at HP was different.
"What happened with HP had nothing to do with greed, a far as we
know. What they did has more to do with the corporation's bottom
line than it does greed," Robins explains. "A leak of information
is not about underhandedly trying to keep the stock price high:
It's about keeping the competition fair and even."
Adds Robins: "As far as I am concerned, all of the investigations
about leaks should be targeted at the people who leaked
information. They are the ones who didn't meet their fiduciary
Robins, who had held the title of Global Knowledge Manager of HP
Education Services, is recently retired, and he holds the company
in high esteem for it record of accomplishments. So, he bristles at
comparisons to criminal activity at companies like Enron. "I saw in
the press the comparisons to the Enron scandal. It's not the same,"
he says. "No one stole any money. The retirees, and I am one of
them, didn't lose any money. The customers are still being
serviced. And investors are thinking the company is doing better
than it had been the month before.
"I don't see how it relates to Enron or (other corporate) scandals.
I do see how it relates to stupid."
Robins says he is dismayed at the lack of common sense show by HP's
chairman, the now-resigned Patricia Dunn. "There were no adults on
the playground that day," he says. "The board agreed that they
should do this. It was given to private detectives who do what
private detectives do. It wasn't breaking (California) law, but it
wasn't nice to try to get what they weren't entitled to. The fact
that they went after news people was stupid. But I don't know who
was acting unethically at that point."
"Many situations regarding ethics can be very murky," explains
ethics expert Lieber. "People can legitimately think they are doing
the right thing, but they instead are unintentionally engaging in
some sort of conflict of interest or ethical violation."
Lieber suggests that every organization is different, and its
approach to ethics training needs to be appropriately customized.
"Learning organizations need to conduct a sort of risk assessment
as to where the company is not conducting appropriate training, or
does not have appropriate policies regarding ethics and codes of
conduct," she explains. "Training on ethics at a lumber company is
going to be very different than the training you would do at a
financial services company. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach.
We work with the employer on their code of conduct and then we
develop scenarios and training on each aspect of that code of
conduct that applies to each situation the company faces."
Organizations can become very insular, so it is a good idea to get
an outside opinion, explains Lieber. "It's a good idea to get an
outside attorney or someone versed in ethics to take a fresh look
at the company's ethics efforts. That helps from a legal liability
standpoint as well.
"Then it is good to develop a track on how the organization needs
to get in compliance [with ethics standards or laws], creation of
policies for and procedures," she explains. "Training is a huge
element in that process."
If an organization expects to effect a change in its culture, it
has to conduct training that is measurable, Lieber explains. "It's
important not only to check the box that training has taken place
but also to demonstrate what knowledge and skills employees and
supervisors have grained as a result of the training. And how that
is transferred to their jobs and what difference that makes to the