Is it time for Chief Integrity Officers?

Getty Images

I was working on a pitch this week for a new brand launching in the Middle East. I was reading up on post-Covid trends when it comes to how people now expect their adopted brands to behave; a lot of stuff on purpose, authenticity and a strong sense that brands should “do the right thing.”

As I have an Olympic Gold in procrastination, my attention wandered and I found myself considering two (not un-related) stories which had come to my attention that week.

The first was a truly shocking story of criminality by Southern Water.

The company were fined over £90 million for DELIBERATELY discharging up to 21 billion litres of raw sewage into the seas off the North Kent Coast.

In his summary, the Judge said;

“These offences show a shocking and wholesale disregard for the environment, for precious and delicate ecosystems and coastlines, for human health, and for fisheries and other legitimate businesses that operate in the coastal waters”

But what shocked me most was that he said the company had a history of criminal activity for its “previous and persistent pollution of the environment”. It had 168 previous convictions and cautions but had ignored these and not substantially altered its behaviour.

The Judge continued;

“There is no evidence the company took any notice of the penalties imposed or the remarks of the courts. Its offending simply continued”

The prosecution followed the biggest ever investigation by the Environment Agency which uncovered “very serious widespread criminality” by the company over a period of nearly six years, which was known about at the highest level.

The other story related to a friend who was the victim of an elaborate Crypto-Currency scam which ending up costing him a substantial amount of money; money he simply couldn’t afford to lose.

On the face of it there are many differences between these two organisations; one is a well-structured PLC running a public utility; the other is a criminal gang operating out of Eastern Europe.

However, both engaged in criminal activity; of course, Southern Water is not a solely criminal enterprise but it DID repeatedly and knowingly break the law.

What both organisations have in common is a lack of integrity.

Let’s leave the Estonian gang to one side and look at corporate integrity; How does an organisation like Southern Water end up repeatedly, knowingly breaking the law?

And of course, we should mention that there are many; take Volkswagon with the diesel emissions scandal, Enron and countless corporate scandals before that.

I would even venture that the saintly Richard Branson has an integrity gap; only last year he was begging the UK Govt for financial bail outs (from his private Caribbean island) but roll forward a year and he managed to find a few billion to launch himself into space!

Of course it’s not just about these extreme cases. Many, many businesses seem to operate in ways which baffle their customers, their competitors and even many of their employers.

Without wishing to sound like Carrie Bradshaw; this got me thinking…..

How on earth is this still happening when consumers are becoming more discerning about their brands? Why are brands allowing this to happen?

What is at the heart of these scandals? At some point, someone decided that it is OK to break the law; moreover, to profit from breaking the law; why?

I presume these people were otherwise reasonably decent people with families, kids and friends?

Is there a difference between one’s personal integrity and one’s corporate integrity?

Are we all capable of this in the right circumstances? Perhaps we fear of losing our job; perhaps we enter into a groupthink state of mind or perhaps we would be just be driven by greed?

Most businesses of a certain scale have Compliance Officers who (very broadly) keep a business legal; but is it time to go one stage further? Is it time for Chief Integrity Officers?

It’s time to quote Warren Buffet;

“We look for three things when we hire people. We look for intelligence, we look for initiative and energy, and we look for integrity. And if they don’t have the latter, the first two will kill you, because if you’re going to get someone without integrity, you want them lazy and dumb.”

The idea is not entirely new; I can find articles arguing for Integrity Officers as far back as 2005, but the idea does seem to be gathering pace in the past year.

Some companies are joining this cause and have appointed CIO’s, most notably Volkwagon appointed Hiltrud Verner to the post in the wake of the emissions scandal.

In a recent interview, she detailed the value that Volkswagon now places on integrity.

“A company will only endure if its customers remain convinced that the products are morally acceptable and beneficial to the wider community. If a company and its employees merely restrict themselves to pursuing their own agenda, that eventually takes its toll on customer benefit — one might even say on customer trust.”

If we can measure our personal integrity as the person we are when nobody is looking; how do we measure corporate integrity?

I think we should see corporate integrity as being a bright torch for any organisation; is the business TRULY making decisions according to its values? Is it driving value for society, employees and the environment? What is going on in the dark corners?

Because, when an organisation truly commits to acting with integrity and transparency, we all benefit.

So perhaps we should all ask ourselves if our businesses always act in accordance with our values? Is there more we could do to drive benefits beyond our shareholder base? Do we always act with integrity?

I’m quite pleased that I procrastinated now…..