3 Reasons Your Compliance Reporting System Fails: Lessons Learned from the Human Gene Editing Controversy

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Last week, genetics researcher, He Jiankui, claimed to create the world’s first gene-edited humans. He has stated publicly that he modified two twin girls in an experiment attempting to protect the babies from contracting HIV. 

For many this was startling to hear – genetically modified humans — and likely evoked strong reactions.

I’m not going to opine about the ethics of the situation (I’ll let the experts debate that).

How could such a controversial event take place without word ever reaching someone in a position to stop it or at least address it publicly?

Rather, this event raised a big question for me: how could such a controversial event take place without word ever reaching someone in a position to stop it or at least address it publicly? Performing human experimentation in the secrecy of a dark lab unbeknownst to anyone is concerning; however, it is an isolated incident and can be chalked up to a rogue scientist. That is not the case here. Jiankui was not some mad scientist in an underground layer. He was a scientist that was liked by others and actually had been discussing his plans with a number of other scientists for a while. Furthermore, some of the individuals he spoke to about his plan now say that they were alarmed at what they heard and admonished him.

It is a fact that people knew of the issue and felt that it was wrong, yet they tried nothing else to stop an unethical experiment that needs to be examined by E&C professionals.

It is classic example of a system failure:

  • There was a clear ethical and moral dilemma playing out
  • Those who objected directly to He did not take their concerns further, they trusted that He would alter his behavior
  • For some reason, individuals who were upset about He’s conduct did not take their concerns further leaving us to ask were the reporting channels not clear, not available, or was there fear about speaking up?

For the rest of us, this situation should give us a moment of pause; ask yourself: if something as human-existence-altering as gene editing is not enough to get someone to raise their voice, how can we create programs where employees report the nominal bribe, expense report irregularities, or subtle forms of harassment and discrimination?

This is all still possible, but we have to become masters of constructing context for our employees. Context removes uncertainty, and uncertainty is the killer of many a speak-up culture.

Create Context, Remove Uncertainty, Reinforce Values

Where to Speak Up

I’m sure there are specific avenues for those in the science community to report issues of concern – the World Health Organizations, National Institute of Health, regional governments, etc. It appears though, that these channels are not as clearly defined and promoted as they could/should be. This is key to encourage speaking up. People need to know exactly what phone number to call, which door to knock on, or who to email when they have a concern. And you cannot just assume that they know what to do – I’m pretty certain that many of your employees would struggle if you asked them how to make a report in your organization. If this is uncertain, the action (the report) that triggers everything else could be dead in the water.

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When to Speak Up

Uncertainty can make the difference between a bystander being somewhat uncomfortable with a situation, and that same bystander raising their voice and calling more attention to the situation.

Even on a more foundational level than where to report, people need to be certain on what events they should report on. Is performing scientific experimentation on humans a reportable offense? Most would say absolutely. However, does editing an embryonic gene to secure a healthier life for a child fall into the same category? The answer may be less clear to some as values and beliefs may vary. Again this uncertainty can make the difference between a bystander being somewhat uncomfortable with a situation, and that same bystander raising their voice and calling more attention to the situation.

Both of these issues can be mitigated with strong compliance training and education. People should be trained on the overarching values that guide their general behaviors within the context of the workplace. They should be coached to be curious and ask questions, and they should never be punished for engaging in this important behavior. In addition, people should be trained on the specific forms of misconduct that they may encounter in their daily jobs. Not only do they need to know that the organization strives for a culture of ethics, but also that clocking in for your colleague or accepting above average holiday gifts from vendors is considered unethical.

Reinforce What People Know

After education, context needs reinforcement. In this unfolding story of gene editing, there is currently an open switch in the form of authority response. There is currently some dissatisfaction with the weakness of response from the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing. The organization condemned the behavior, but has not planned any action to ensure it doesn’t happen again or even thwart copycat behavior. We can see this as the tone from the top, and the driving force of culture. Without a strong show of organizational commitment to the values we train our people on, we can’t be too surprised when they choose to follow what organizations do rather than what they say. And this is where transparency is going to be a key initiative in 2019 for ethics and compliance professionals.

The individuals who provide the key insights for us to protect our organizations are everywhere; we need to create the necessary context with the necessary resources to ensure they actually make the report.


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Remembering W. Michael Hoffman

All of us who work in ethics and compliance are indebted to Dr. Hoffman for his vision in creating many of the founding institutions of the ethics and compliance movement and for setting a personal example of tireless commitment to serving others.

Among Dr. Hoffman’s professional accomplishments are his founding of the Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University in 1976. In that same year, he organized the first National Conference on Business Ethics bringing together academics, business executives and government leaders. In 1992 he founded the Ethics Officer Association (EOA), the first cross-industry group to help ethics officers share best practices. As the first Executive Director of the EOA he created training programs for new Ethics Officers. To-date, the programs have helped nearly 1,000 professionals in their new careers. On the academic front, Dr. Hoffman published 15 books, over 100 articles, co-founded and edited business ethics journals and helped create the Society for Business Ethics.

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