Thursday, October 28

Setting Example: How Ethics Plays Out, And Pays Out

While I would never encourage someone to seek a position to be a whistleblower, Cheryl Eckard, the former global quality assurance manager of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), demonstrated a near perfect example of how ethics ought to play out.

It's a lesson more public relations professionals and communicators might learn. As an industry, I sense many are still struggling to get it right. Well, it's more than a sense. I see exams that demonstrate ethics is approaching a crisis stage.

Eckard received $96 million of the settlement paid by the London-based company, which included $150 million in criminal fines and $600 million in civil penalties. The entire story makes an interesting case study in public relations. But for the purposes of the this post, the best lesson is how to approach ethical dilemmas inside a company.

How Eckard Approached Ethics Inside GlaxoSmithKline.

1. Eckard went to the Puerto Rico plant in August 2002 to correct manufacturing violations.
2. She discovered numerous violations, and suggested how those violations might be fixed.
3. She reported the problems to her superiors and the company's compliance department.
4. According to reports, neither the company nor the plant did anything to address the problems.
5. Eckard was eventually terminated, one year later, allegedly because of continuing to report problems.
6. Eckard turned whistleblower out of concern for consumer safety and public health.

The only area for improvement, keeping in mind it isn't clear if the company fired her prior to her realizing the company did not intend to take action, is Eckard could have resigned and still turned whistleblower. Any member of any company has an obligation to warn the public when all efforts to correct a problem internally have failed.

"We regret that we operated the Cidra facility in a manner that was inconsistent with current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) requirements and with GSK's commitment to manufacturing quality," said PD Villarreal, senior vice president and head of global litigation. "GSK worked hard to resolve fully the manufacturing issues at the Cidra facility prior to its closure in 2009 and we are committed to continuous improvement in our manufacturing processes."

Most reports indicate the plant was in violation of safety standards through 2005. The settlement statement reinforces that the company has not received any additional FDA warning letters since 2005. The plant continued to operate until 2009.

Where Public Relations Professionals And Communicators Tend To Trip Up.

From what I have noted, public relations professionals and communicators tend to fall on the opposite extremes of ethics. Either they pounce, reporting and making public any problems (even if there are none) without giving anyone the opportunity to do the right thing. Or, they don't go far enough, following most steps correctly until it becomes time to resign.

Only about 50 percent say they would be prepared to resign. Only about two percent say they would go public after resigning, potentially allowing public safety problems to occur. This concerns me. It ought to concern you too.

While situations might call for variations, ethical dilemmas are best handled by raising the issue with the guilty party, allowing them to correct the mistake and report the problem on their own. If they do not, then the discovering party should report it up to supervisors until one of them takes action. If no one is willing to, then the next appropriate step is to resign, letting the company know you intend to go public. What else is there?
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