Stuck in an Ethical Crisis? What Do You Do?

By Julie Knight

Everyone’s talking about how employees at Wells Fargo were fired for reporting an ethical breach.

Have you ever witnessed a colleague or boss violating a company policy and didn’t know what to do? You like the person. You don’t want to get anyone in trouble. Maybe it was an innocent mistake. Maybe you should ignore it. You don’t want to be a jerk. It’s not your business. Or is it?

You want to do the right thing, but it’s not always clear what the “right” thing is. Do you have an ethical obligation to report wrong doings?

When you joined IABC, you agreed to IABC’s Code of Ethics (see the code below for a refresher). The code serves as a guide to making consistent, responsible, ethical and legal choices in all our communications.


Nigel Glennie knows a lot about addressing questions of ethics. He served as an appointed member of the IABC Ethics Committee from November 2014 to July 2016. The IABC Ethics Committee applies the IABC Code of Ethics and provides leadership on related matters to the association’s 10,000+ members.

When we interviewed Nigel for this story, he was part of the Global Corporate Communications team at Cisco. Recently, he announced that he will soon be making a move east to join Hilton Worldwide as VP, external communications.

We asked Nigel, a 2014 Gold Quill Award winner, to share his own experience managing ethical issues and to shed light on what others can do when it’s not clear to them what they “should” do.

What’s an example of a work situation with ethics-related aspects and how did you deal with it?

Nigel: In 2010, I was leading Cisco’s crisis communication team when we learned that someone unauthorized had accessed our list of attendees for the Cisco Live customer conference.

The fact that we are the world’s leading network routing, switching and security company made this security breach all the more intense. This was our major customer event with 12,700 attendees, including 111 C-level customer executives, 15 technology journalists and 97 analysts.

The ethical question in front of the team was this: “Should we notify all those who may be affected by this, even though the database contained only freely-given, business card type information?” Clearly, our reputation was at stake.

Fortunately, the answer from our team came easily. We quickly agreed it was important to be guided by our company values, do the right thing, and put our customers’ needs ahead of our potential embarrassment. We chose to notify all those affected immediately and made a public announcement.

Do you feel customers and your company’s key stakeholders appreciated your transparency? Or did it not help quell controversy?

Nigel: It was definitely appreciated. One IT security customer said to us, “Nice work, excellent response. Just spot on. A quick and clear response from Cisco was precisely the thing to nail down the speculation and focus on the real issue at hand.” While not everyone was happy, we did receive some positive media coverage, applauding our response.

What do you recommend people do when it’s not clear if there was wrong doing?

Nigel: The great thing about being a professional communicator is that you’re often at the table when tough decisions come forward. Think about our skills and expertise – we’re great at identifying stakeholders and planning for scenarios. We’re also storytellers, who can describe a best- or worst-case scenario in a way that makes others pay attention. This is why I think IABC members have a special responsibility when it comes to matters of ethics.

It’s not your job to be 100% sure if there was wrong doing before reporting an issue. Organizations with a strong ethical culture usually have a few things in common: a clear code of conduct that is visibly shared and supported by executives and the process in place to support those facing ethical decisions.

Employees are encouraged to raise questions and given avenues to do so directly or confidentially.

Part of what I like about IABC having its own Ethics Committee is that it provides an avenue outside of a communicator’s organization or client base to seek advice and counsel. It, and our Code of Ethics, can provide the extra support a member may need in a challenging situation or environment.

If you don’t have an ethics process at your company, I would encourage you to raise your question or dilemma to the IABC Ethics Committee.

If you have an ethics process at your company, under what circumstances would you use the IABC Ethics Committee, or is it only for those who don’t have a company ethics process?

Nigel: Good question. If a workplace issue comes up, it is something that is usually best handled by the company’s existing processes. The IABC Ethics Committee is there to support those who don’t have the same resources at work or want to discuss a communications-specific question. Also, if you are concerned about escalating the issue at your company, the IABC committee offers an option.

Students, consultants and independent communications professionals particularly find the IABC Ethics Committee helpful since they may not have other options. The committee can also address IABC-specific questions or concerns.

If I want to bring a question or concern to the IABC Ethics Committee, what do I do?

Nigel: Call IABC World Headquarters at (415) 544-4700, and you will be referred to someone on the IABC Ethics Committee to receive answers to your ethics questions.

IABC Code of Ethics

  1. I am honest — my actions bring respect for and trust in the communications profession.
  2. I communicate accurate information and promptly correct any errors.
  3. I obey laws and public policies; if I violate any law or public policy, I act promptly to correct the situation.
  4. I protect confidential information while acting within the law.
  5. I support the ideals of free speech, freedom of assembly, and access to an open marketplace of ideas.
  6. I am sensitive to others’ cultural values and beliefs.
  7. I give credit to others for their work and cite my sources.
  8. I do not use confidential information for personal benefit.
  9. I do not represent conflicting or competing interests without full disclosure and the written consent of those involved.
  10. I do not accept undisclosed gifts or payments for professional services from anyone other than a client or employer.
  11. I do not guarantee results that are beyond my power to deliver.

The IABC Code of Ethics is freely available to everyone — you are welcome to copy it and incorporate all or part of the code into your own personal or corporate policies, with appropriate credit given to IABC.

Editor’s note: On Sept. 26, Nigel appeared in a panel discussion on ethics and leadership at a recent SF IABC / PRSA co-sponsored event. SF IABC board member Sue Stoney will post a blog post about this event soon. Stay tuned.

Julie Knight is an accredited business communicator and winner of IABC Silver Quill, Silver Six and Bay Area Bests awards. She currently serves on the SF IABC Board of Directors. Her clients have included The Walt Disney Company, Starbucks, Cisco Systems, McKesson Corporation and Hewlett-Packard, to name a few.


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