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What is the Value of Being Ethical?

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In March, I was at the Global Ethics Summit (GES) in New York City.  The GES is a conference designed to highlight ethical businesses, promote ethical business practices and to offer critical and timely insight into the challenges compliance and ethics professionals face while navigating an increasingly complex and daunting legal landscape.

The conference selects, honors and celebrates those companies designated the World’s Most Ethical Companies.  The companies that were recognized go beyond making statements about ethical business practices.  They translate those words into action.  The honorees demonstrate real and sustained ethical leadership within their industries.  Companies are proud to be selected and promote this designation at every opportunity. 

The companies represented at the conference used their Communication Department to publically promote the ethical values of their organization.  These organizations want the world to know that they follow a code of ethics.  This includes a willingness to publically communicate failures in meeting the ethical and compliance standards they set for themselves and how they dealt with those failures.

These organizations want to be seen as ethical companies.  Why?  What is the value of being an ethical company?

Many healthcare organizations, even those with robust compliance programs, keep their compliance issues private and attempt to deflect scrutiny of their compliance practices.  Yet, healthcare organizations would seem to have a particular interest in being seen as ethical organizations.  At the foundation of medicine and patient care we find the Hippocratic Oath and its pledge to “do no harm”. 

In a 2002 survey by the World Economic Forum of “Trust in institutions to operate in society’s best interests”, where a score of 100 represents complete trust, “Large National Companies” rated a -10!  Health Systems while better, only rated a 17, not exactly the type of rating you would expect from facilities whose mission is to protect our health and heal illness.  Trust should be a key component for any healthcare facility. 

Compliance is often addressed in a negative, defensive manner.  Facilities comply because they are “required” to follow government regulations.  They comply because they want to avoid settlements, fines and penalties.  There is concern that a compliance issue might get out into the public and have a negative impact on the reputation of a facility.  In contrast, at the GES there were companies that published their compliance failures and the actions they followed to show that they were being consistent with their stated ethical standards.

What if we turned that around and viewed compliance in a positive way. 

What if we ask the questions like this: “What is the value of a healthcare company being perceived as ethical?” or “What value does the healthcare facility gain by being ethical?”

Ethics and compliance build trust.  There are two critical groups that are impacted by trust.

Trust influences consumer decisions
Trust is a key foundational concept in attracting and caring for patients in healthcare facilities.  Much of the patient experience is based upon the relationship between the patient and their caregivers.  Like any important relationship there must be trust for it to be a positive experience.  Patients that trust an organization will be more likely to choose that organization for services and more likely to recommend that organization.  For hospital administrators, trust, integrity and the display and communication of those principles have a direct correlation with both the mission and the bottom line of the organization.

Trust attracts and retains employees
An organization that “walks the talk” will attract and maintain a dedicated and committed staff.  To achieve this, the tone, message and especially clear action need to emanate from the very top of the organization.  This is particularly true for your youngest employees, the Millennials.  (Millennials represent those with birth years ranging from the early 80s to the early 2000s and are now entering the workforce in large numbers).  Study after study has shown that Millennials care deeply about the mission, ethics and social responsibility of the organizations they work for. 

Healthcare facilities need to promote their compliance successes and consistently and swiftly address any lapses in compliance.  Organizations no longer need to hide from compliance.  Actions that emphasize high ethical standards and that promote and communicate ethical behavior are clear and consistent with the goals of healthcare organizations.  Ethical behavior provides great value.