(First published on LinkedIn)
A few months ago I offered tips on How to Talk About Ethics and Compliance at a Cocktail Party. Here, I offer a way to explain it to a football fan.
The opening game between the Charlotte Panthers and the Denver Broncos was mired in controversy after Cam Newton, the Panthers’ quarterback, suffered a few hard hits to his head without invoking the NFL’s new “concussion protocol.”
Under the protocol, a player with a suspected head injury would be evaluated for signs of concussion before being allowed to continue playing. In this case, medical personnel failed to examine Cam Newton directly, but concluded that he was OK to keep playing after reviewing only video footage.
The question is – did the league ignore the protocol because it didn’t want to interrupt the game, which may hurt television ratings? It was the opening game of the season, a tight rematch of the Super Bowl teams, and one of the hits occurred with only 30 seconds left in the game. If the quarterback were pulled out, it would have made for a much less exciting show.
In the wider corporate setting, the concussion protocol is akin to corporate policies. The question is how well these policies are enforced. Are they enforced only when convenient and ignored when some other business priority – such as signing a big contract – is at stake?
An organization with a strong ethical culture would enforce the policies consistently; one with a weak ethical culture may not. When employees perceive that policies are applied inconsistently, the policies become ineffective and the corporate culture deteriorates even more.
Then there’s the question of the timing of the concussion protocol. After decades of aggressively denying that there is a linkage between repeated concussions and brain damage later in life, the NFL has now begrudgingly admitted that there may possibly be a connection. But this did not happen until after public pressure mounted, a Congressional hearing compared football to the cigarette industry, a PBS/Frontline documentary aired and a hit Hollywood movie starring Will Smith was made.
Similarly, many companies only truly invest in and elevate their ethics and compliance programs after being caught red-handed in an ethics scandal. Tyco and Siemens come to mind, and Volkswagen and Wells Fargo may very well follow.
As for whether or not the NFL deliberately ignored the concussion protocol at the Panthers vs. Broncos game, the jury is still out. Either way, the public has now put the NFL on notice.