Business Ethics, Values and Compliance: Walking the Talk

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Business Ethics, Values and Compliance: Walking the Talk

Ethical business conduct and value standards, especially of medium, large to very large corporations are coming under increasing stakeholders’ scrutiny and being severely criticized for non-compliance in many instances. At the same time, more and more corporate initiatives are being taken towards this direction by both the global and local companies with special emphasis to combat bribery/ corrupt business practices and contribute to social justice and environmental protection.

The scope of ‘ethical business conducts and value standards’ of a company usually encompasses the following, among many others:

  1. The employees, suppliers, customers and other stakeholders
  2. Caring for the society and environment
  3. Fiduciary responsibilities
  4. Business and marketing practices
  5. R&D activities, including clinical trials
  6. Corporate Governance
  7. Corporate espionage

That said, codes of ethical conduct, corporate values and their compliance should not only get limited to the top management, but must get percolated downwards, looking beyond the legal and regulatory boundaries.

Statistics of compliance to codes of business ethics and corporate values are important to know, but the qualitative change in the ethics and value standards of an organization should always be the most important goal to drive any business corporation and the pharmaceutical sector is no exception.

Business Ethics and Values in the globalized economy:

Globalization of business makes the process of formulating the codes of ethics and values indeed very challenging for many organizations. This is mainly because of the fact that the cultural differences at times create a conflict on ethics and values involving different countries.

For this purpose, many business organizations prefer to interact with the cultural and religious leaders in the foreign countries, mainly to ascertain what really drives culturally diverse people to act in certain ways.

With the wealth of knowledge of the local customs and people, the cultural and religious leaders can help an organization to unify the code of ethics and values of the globalized business.Such leaders can also help identifying the ‘common meeting ground of minds’ from a specific country perspective, after carefully assessing the cultural differences, which are difficult to resolve in the near term.

The ‘common meeting ground of minds’, thus worked out, could form the bedrock to initiate further steps to strengthen global business standards of ethics and values of an organization.

OECD with USA started early enacting ‘Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA)’:

To prevent bribery and corrupt practices, especially in a foreign land, in 1997, along with 33 other countries belonging to the ‘Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’, the United States Congress enacted a law against the bribery of foreign officials, which is known as ‘Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA)’.

This Act marked the early beginnings of ethical compliance program in the United States and disallows the US companies from paying, offering to pay or authorizing to pay money or anything of value either directly or through third parties or middlemen. FCPA currently has significant impact on the way American companies are required to run their business, especially in the foreign land.

But a dichotomy exists in the US for ‘Grease Payment’:

‘Grease payment’ is classified by OECD as “a facilitating one if it is paid to government employees to speed up an administrative process where the outcome is already pre-determined.”

In the FCPA of the US ‘grease payment’, has been defined as “a payment to a foreign official, political party or party official for ‘routine governmental action,’ such as processing papers, issuing permits, and other actions of an official, in order to expedite performance of duties of non-discretionary nature, i.e., which they are already bound to perform. The payment is not intended to influence the outcome of the official’s action, only its timing.”

Considering all these ‘grease payments’ seem to be an absolute dichotomy to the overall US policy for ethical standards and against corruption.

Currently besides US, only Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea are the countries that permit ‘Grease payments’.

Notwithstanding the fact that the governments of the US and four other countries allow companies to keep doing business without undue delay by making ‘grease payments’ to the lower government officials, such payments are considered as illegal in most other countries, if not all, in which they are paid, including India.

In India such a business practice is viewed as bribery, which is not only perceived as unethical and immoral, but also a criminal offense under the law of the land. Even otherwise, ‘grease payments’ are viewed by a vast majority of the population as a morally questionable standard of ‘business conduct’.

Many companies are setting-up the ethical business standards globally:

While visiting the website of especially the large global and local companies, one finds that all these companies barring a very few exceptions have already put in place a comprehensive ‘code of business ethics and values’. Some of these companies have also put in place dedicated code compliance officers across the globe.

However, it is important to ensure that the persons who are appointed either as the ‘Watch Dogs’ for such commendable initiatives or to head any committee on the subject, are individuals with squeaky clean record of adherence to the ‘Code of Ethics and Values’. Otherwise, the entire exercise may be perceived as making a mockery of the whole purpose.

Despite all these commendable initiatives towards establishing a corporate codes of business ethics and values, the moot question that haunts many time and again: “Are all these companies ‘walking the talk’?”

Otherwise, why does one read news items like ‘Dirty Secrets In Soap Prices’ as appeared in the ‘Wall Street Journal’ dated December 9, 2011 reporting that P&G, Colgate and Henkel have been fined $484 million by the French Government for ‘Price Fixing’ of laundry soap.

Or why do we see reports like one in the “Fierce Pharma’ dated October 5, 2010 stating that in the US eleven pharmaceutical companies have paid a total of over $6 billion to the government in 22 months for unethical marketing practices Or a ‘Bloomberg’ report dated January 17, 2011 with the headline, “Glaxo Sees $3.5 Billion Charge Related to Avandia Claims, Sales Practices.”

Or…

It is perhaps a sheer coincidence that whenever, such incidents take place, the fingers are usually pointed towards the middle or lower management cadre of the corporations concerned for non-compliance. The Corporate or top management ownership of such seemingly avoidable incidents still remains a distant reality.

Public perception of ethical standards of Pharmaceutical companies is not encouraging:

In the pharmaceutical sector all over the world, the marketing practices have still remained a very contentious issue despite many attempts of self-regulation by the industry. The flow of complaints for alleged unethical business practices have not slowed down significantly, across the world, even after so many years of self-regulation.

Nearer home, the Department of Pharmaceuticals of the Government of India has already circulated a draft ‘Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCPMP)’ for stakeholders to comment on it. The final UCPMP, when it comes into force, if not implemented by the pharmaceutical players in its ‘letter and spirit’, may attract government’s ire in form of strong doses of regulatory measures.

A study on the UCPMP:

Ernst & Young released the key findings of a survey report on the UCPMP in September, 2011 titled ‘Pharmaceutical marketing: ethical and responsible conduct’, which are as follows:

  • Around two-third of the respondents felt that the implementation of the Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCPMP) drafted by the Department of Pharmaceuticals, would change the manner in which the pharma products are currently marketed in India
  • More than 50% of the respondents are of the opinion that UCPMP guidelines may lead to manipulation in recording of actual sampling activity
  • More than 50% of the respondents indicated that the effectiveness of the code will be very low in the absence of legislative support provided to the UCPMP committee
  • Majority of the respondents (90%) felt that pharma companies in India should focus on building a robust internal controls system for ensuring compliance with the UCPMP
  • Around 72% of the respondents felt that the MCI was not stringently enforcing its medical ethics guidelines
  • Only 36% of the respondents felt that the MCI’s guidelines would have an impact on the overall sales of the pharma companies

Thus the quality of implementation of self-regulatory ‘Code of Marketing Practices’ is not only attracting heavy criticism from the stakeholders in many countries in the world, including India, but also indicating a trust deficit between the industry and the civil society in general.

Clinical Trials in India: Ethics and values

Clinical Trial is another area of pharmaceutical business, especially in the Indian context, where more often than not, issues related to ethics and values are being raised. In an article titled, ‘Clinical trials in India: ethical concerns’ published by the World Health Organization (WHO) following observations have been made:

“The latest developments in India reflect a concerted effort on the part of the global public health community to push clinical trials issues to the fore in the wake of several high-profile cases in which pharmaceutical companies were shown to be withholding information from regulators.”

Similarly ‘Times of India’ in its June 6, 2011 issue reported, “Clinical trials claimed 25 lives in 2010, only 5 paid compensation.”

Conclusion:

The need to formulate ‘Codes of Business Ethics & Values’ and even more importantly their compliance are gaining increasing importance and relevance in the globalized business environment. Unfortunately, at the same time, many companies across the world are being increasingly forced to come to terms with the heavy costs and consequences of ‘unethical behavior and business practices’ by the respective governments, perhaps arising out of intense pressure for the business performance.

There is no global consensus, as yet, on what is ethically and morally acceptable ‘Business Ethics and Values’ across the world. However, even if it these are implemented in a country-specific way, the most challenging obstacle to overcome by the corporates would still remain ‘walking the talk’ and owning the responsibility.

The million dollar question thus emerges ‘How to make it happen?’

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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