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What does Ethics have to do with Compliance?

That’s the question I posed in my keynote speech at last week’s European Compliance & Ethics Community ECEC2021 event — available soon on demand, register here.

It's possibly not the question you’d expect anyone to pose at a conference designed around both topics. But I think it’s something worth exploring. Because on the face of it, Ethics — getting employees to do ‘what is right’ — is very different from Compliance — getting them to do ‘what the rules say’.

Ethics is intrinsically motivated — we base our decision-making on what we know is morally correct — whereas compliance is extrinsic — we’re told what we can and can’t do.

To understand the difference between the two, consider the difference between how you’d react if I said you were ‘non-compliant' and how you’d react if I said you were unethical. Neither is positive, but while ‘non-compliant’ feels like a comment on your behaviour, calling you ‘unethical feels like a comment about you. They’re very different things.

So why then, do we often combine the two?

The answer is that they’re inextricably linked in ways that might not always be immediately obvious. For example, as I outline in the this quote from my talk, when we breach one of the two topics, we often excuse it by reference to the other.

It’s easier to ignore rules if we can claim that doing so would somehow be more ethical than not ignoring them. Equally, it’s easier to ignore ethical considerations if there’s a rule we can cite that permits us to do so.

Think of it like this:

“I broke the speed limit because getting to my destination quickly was somehow incredibly important”


“My driving licence allows me to drive trucks, even though I’ve never driven one, and I’m going to give it a go because I’m allowed to”

Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should.

My huge thanks to Achim Weick, Marcus Sultzer 苏哲凯, Andre Silverio Marques, Christian Pfleger and the entire team at EQS Group, for not only giving me an amazing platform to pose the question but also actively encouraging me to do so. Particularly as I was challenging the very premise behind the event!


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