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Thirty years have passed since ethics and compliance were added to the working vocabulary of life sciences.  I know because I was there at the beginning.  However,  while the business of healthcare has changed dramatically, the promise of ethics and compliance programs to address “bad” corporate behavior and improve the reputation of drug and medical device companies remains unfulfilled.  Despite the ongoing efforts of compliance professionals, lawyers, and government regulators, old issues and egregious examples of poor corporate behavior stubbornly persist in generating negative headlines.

The problem is not a lack of effort, but rather how we discuss ethics and compliance expectations.  We speak in terms of “integrity,” “risk,” “internal controls,” and “culture.” However, many people view these terms as theoretical and more relevant to philosophy than business.  We also focus on what the government says and how to avoid enforcement actions.  Therefore, we tend to stress the negative aspects of poor compliance, such as fines and penalties.

As a result, we have created an ethics and compliance dialog riddled with complex and hard-to-define ideas that are even harder to apply.  Our discussions too often focus on directing people about “what” to do, instead of “why” to do it.  In some cases, when we try to explain “why,” it is shrouded in a wrapper of mitigating risk and avoiding problems that could happen.

We need to go back to basics and simplify the dialog.  We need to start the discussion with the “golden rule” of treating others how we want to be treated and strive to cause no harm.  We also need to center our discussions on the concept that people (patients, healthcare professionals, and fellow employees) are at the heart of everything.  It means acknowledging that Milton Friedman was wrong.  The sole purpose of our companies is not to maximize shareholder value.  It is about making all aspects of people’s lives better.

So, what does all this mean in practice?  It means politeness, civil discussion, and taking the time to understand people, matters.  It is far too easy to jump to negative conclusions about the responses we receive, especially in this time of continual stress and uncertainty.  It is the nature of the compliance job that we tend to look at the glass as “half empty,” rather than “half full.”  We need to change that perspective.

As compliance professionals, we are hard-wired to solve problems, but many times our desire to solve problems gets in the way of understanding the real issue or considering the best solution.  There are relatively few matters that require an immediate answer.  We need to learn to pause and listen.  We also need to admit that we do not have all the answers.  Nobody does.  Therefore, we need to listen far more than we speak.  In other words, we should follow Nelson Mandela’s axiom of being the last to speak.

By changing the dialog and being its role models, we can focus clearly on the objectives and avoid distractions.  For example, if we really treat others as we want to be treated, do we need to spend endless hours training employees on how not to harass or bully others at work?  Or spend hours debating how to incentivize top talent?  Instead, we can focus on hiring the right people and paying them fairly based upon their skills (experience and education), and responsibilities. We also can reward employees based on their contribution to the company’s long-term success rather than their company titles or their quarterly results.  This is not anti-business, because if we get this right it will bring increased success and profits.

Thinking differently to change the dialogue will not be easy.  After all, the way we speak about ethics and compliance has evolved over three decades.   Given the current environment and situation, we find ourselves in, I don’t see the harm in trying.  What do you think?