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There are plenty of white collar criminals out there: insider traders, embezzlers, nearly all of FIFA. But there are also plenty of people who stumble into corruption, not because they are corrupt, but because there is not a strong enough ethical system in their workplace.
How can in-house counsel insure that otherwise ethical businesspeople don't stray into illegal practices? Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, has some advice -- and if anyone is qualified to talk about white collar crime, it's him. Few lawyers have brought down as many white collar criminals as Bharara.
In a speech to Stanford Business School's Politics and Government Club, Bharara emphasized that a culture of silence can end up hurting a workplace. The speech was first reported by Stanford Business and republished in Inc. magazine. To counter the pressure to look the other way when misconduct arises, Bharara recommends that workers take five steps to maintain ethical behavior.
1. Report Your Suspicions: If something feels "fishy," Bharara says, it probably is. Encouraging employees to report suspect business practices can help companies nip any wrongdoing in the bud.
2. Encourage Openness: No one will report their suspicions if they feel like they will be punished or ignored for it, however. Instituting strong checks against retaliation and creating a culture where concerns can be freely shared is important to making sure employees feel comfortable expressing their thoughts.
3. Keep Your Reputation in Mind: When deciding if a concern is worth investigating, Bharara recommends keeping the company's reputation for honesty and ethics at the forefront. Reputational damage can be difficult to recover from.
4. Seek Out Ethical Employers: Not ending up working for the next Bernie Madoff means that businesspeople, and in-house counsel, need to ensure that prospective employers have a strong commitment to the law and ethics. In interviews, ask about how companies handle ethical concerns and how they might respond to reports of unethical behavior.
5. Practice: In perhaps his best tip, Bharara recommends working through hypothetical scenarios. How would your corporation, from H.R. to the legal department, to the chief executives, respond to legal and ethical problems that could arise? Actually play out the scenario. Strategizing and developing plans in advance can leave you better prepared should those issues ever arise.
Following Bharara's advice could help keep you and your company from becoming accidental white collar criminals.