Magazine article Communication World

Blurred Standards: When Corporate Ethics Fall by the Wayside, So Does the Public's Trust

Magazine article Communication World

Blurred Standards: When Corporate Ethics Fall by the Wayside, So Does the Public's Trust

Article excerpt

Third in a series on ethics in business communication. This series originally appeared in IABC Toronto's Communicator.

We may never know the role business communicators played behind the scenes at energy giant Enron and its Chicago auditing firm Arthur Andersen before their questionable accounting practices caught the media's attention.

What we do know is that senior Enron executive Sherron Watkins wrote a letter to CEO Kenneth Lay in August 2001 warning of accounting irregularities that could pose a threat to the Dallas-based company. Now she is celebrated in the media for her courage--a rare status for whistleblowers. We also learned from Watkins that Clifford Baxter, an Enron employee for 10 years, raised similar concerns after becoming vice-chairman of the company's board of directors. He resigned in May 2001 within six months of assuming the post and took his own life this past January--shortly after the U.S. Senate began hearings into Enron's activities.

If you were an Enron or Andersen employee and had knowledge of the activities now being investigated, what would you do?


Effective business communicators bring more to the job than their writing, multitasking, creative thinking and people skills. We also bring our good judgment and a keen sense of our audience's culture, standards and expectations. That's the context for--and the real value of--the work we do and advice we give.

As communicators, our job is to help create, defend and promote the best image for our employer or client. It helps if we feel good about these organizations. It also helps if we work in a corporate culture that actively supports and promotes ethical practices.

For the majority of communicators, day-to-day operations and decision-making rarely pose serious ethical dilemmas. Sometimes the more pressing concern is working for a company or client whose ethical practices clash with our own, as few communicators have the luxury of shopping around for the ideal employer. And although most organizations have well-written codes of conduct, they do little good if they are not communicated and enforced.

In Enron's case, the board of directors apparently went so far as to suspend the code of conduct. That, of course, speaks volumes for the role of ethics in the company's corporate culture, especially when you consider that the board is supposed to act as the organization's ethical conscience. Enron may be an extreme case study in ethics, but what about Andersen?


In the words of the accounting firm's outgoing managing partner and CEO Joseph F. …

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