Ethics in corporate intelligence are not easy. The Harvey Weinstein scandal is a good example of this dilemma.

Harvey Weinstein: A Client Too Far

Ethics in Investigations

Ethics in corporate intelligence are not easy.  The Harvey Weinstein scandal is a good example of this dilemma.  Ethics are not a matter an organization merely acting as a responsible member of society.  In the focus on getting the job done for a client, particularly in corporate intel and investigations, some players are all too happy to operate in grey areas.  Yet to win in the long run, doing what is right is also smart, especially in today’s radically transparent world.

Corporate Intelligence has had a bad rap the past twenty years: Enron, Gawker, Uber and now Harvey Weinstein hogging the headlines.  From this author’s perspective, organizations who work on questionable cases for short-term gains will only garner notoriety (and possibly infamy) as media hype cycles generate headlines sure to emerge in a Google search. In the long term, clients will ultimately avoid the ruthless investigators, opting for those providing admissible results while keeping everyone’s hands clean.  We see this tendency across the board: focusing on quick wins, even burning bridges for short-term gain.  Despite jerks lionized in the media (and especially here in New York), the reality is that successful organizations and people play the long game, distancing themselves from any hint of transactional management.

Ethics in the corporate investigations world are often seen a matter of culture.  Operating within the moral and ethical bounds of the West could be viewed very differently from those in the East. These are rationalizations to excuse bad behavior, because basic fundamentals of human rights and ethics govern the international business community.  Despite living in a divisive time, we still hold to a universal standard regarding ethics.  Discipline and adherence to a higher standard are not easy.

Back to Harvey. This amazing scenario reflects two fundamentally questionable areas of business ethics.  First, the aspiration to silence his victims.  Our society is not amoral, though some pundits liken business as warfare, winner take all, etc.  Even in battle there are ethics, as warriors have a code.  Weinstein may see himself as a victim (as do many isolated people in power, particularly those engaging in predatory behavior), but his attempt to silence those he harmed violated our society’s standards of ethics.  Second (and this is the tricky part) are the tactics used by the firms Weinstein hired to investigate his victims, leading to blackmail and attempts to discredit them.  An investigator in that position might feign innocence, merely accomplishing the assignment. The argument becomes more complicated since some members of the firms Harvey hired previously worked in government and intelligence.  Where is the line of ethics drawn when the security of your country and family are at stake?

Harvey knows reputations matter, incredibly so. In the grey world of Corporate Intelligence the wise strategist stays on the ethical side, not venturing into questionable areas.  Clients retain a firm for the work executed but also for manner performed.  Some people like to describe themselves as ruthless, but most would be more comfortable knowing the provider they hired adhered to utmost ethical principles.  Take Uber, where we’ve seen the fallout from a questionable culture (one deploying unethical investigative approaches) lead to the CEO’s resignation.

These considerations ultimately fall under an organization’s reputation and ties into business development as a key strategy for success: a firm’s reputation precedes itself. Employees must ensure the organization they’re selling is built a solid foundation.  Organizations and individuals want to work with a firm with a stellar reputation, as it is a mirror of how they perceive themselves.

Organizations aspiring to reach top tier status want to be perceived by the public as doing the right thing.  Transparency in business has become sought after.  We are moving beyond last century’s corporate veil where withholding information projected power, and we resent companies still practicing that behavior.  Firms that knowingly violate ethics will suffer long term.  Unethical business practices ultimately lead to the deterioration of an organization’s culture – just ask Harvey.  On the other side, we see principled ethical organizations enjoying long-term success.

Being good is not just good karma. Adhering to a high moral code, especially when no one is looking, is the key to organizational longevity and success in today’s competitive and discerning environment.  Even Harvey knows that.