The Issue of Corporate Ethics Defines the General Counsel Role

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The number of CEOs who fall victim to accusations of unethical behaviour has increased in recent years. Does this mean there are more unethical CEOs or is it just greater understanding and nuanced interpretations of ethics than ever before?

We only need to look to #MeToo and #TimesUp to see that behaviours which might previously been seen as ‘just the way things are’ or ‘boys being boys’, now recast in a different light. The greater focus on ESG environmental social governance has also changed many of the defining aspects of what ‘good ‘business looks like. Indeed, whole industries may now be on the wrong side of history.

What’s interesting in considering unethical behaviours are the ways in which these are shaped by the cultures in which they take place. How cultural codes make certain behaviours seem OK because ‘everyone is doing it.’ It’s generally a series of small shades of grey moments rather than a stark Faustian pact. And often the justifications can seem convincing such as producing the best returns or making a new breakthrough in R&D, proving the truth of the aphorism ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions.’

Merete Wendell Wesenberg, the author of Battle Mind: Performing Under Pressure identifies three drivers for unethical behaviours.


Omnipotence. This feeling of invincibility and creativity can be positive but when it lapses into negative behaviour it’s about thinking that rules are for other people.

To the omnipotent leader, rules and norms are meant for everyone but them. Crossing a line feels less like a transgression and more like what they are owed.”

Sometimes this trait can be very positive and help leaders to made bold choices and be radical and creative. But issues can come when these are unchecked. If no one tells you “No,” you have a problem.  For many general counsel and in-house lawyers, ensuring you can say no in the most meaningful way and be heard is fundamental.

The other significant factor is cultural numbness, where no matter how principled an individual is over time this shifts toward the culture of your organisation or team. If there are issues with the culture of the organisation this can lead to softening of moral boundaries. We see this being played in organisations where we might wonder what was the general counsel thinking? But perhaps how and what they were thinking had been compromised due to the cultural norms of the majority.

A useful check and balance is would you be comfortable telling a journalist or a judge about what’s going on? One organisation had a defining line for its employees about whether they would feel comfortable telling their mother!

Whilst regulations, codes of conduct, CSR policies whistleblower provisions and so forth are vital we also need to understand the importance of recognising and the effects of the psychological causes of unethical behaviours for all leaders including, of course, the general counsel.

Contributed by:

Dr Catherine McGregor MCMI ChMC
Consulting, Thought Leadership, Training
+44 (0) 7753 196264

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