A Different Kind of Standards

A recent series in the Wall Street Journal examined corporate ethics a year after passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which was intended to reform accounting and governance practices in the wake of Enron, WorldCom and other scandals. The articles concluded some publicly traded companies are still playing games with reports of earnings and other financial measures, and it's uncertain how much progress such companies have made reforming their governing boards. In short, many of the Sarbanes-Oxley provisions aren't in effect yet or aren't being followed.

What is quality's role in all this? Many experts believe it could be significant; witness the articles in this issue. "Corporate Social Responsibility" (p. 27) discusses how four key elements of quality management--tools and techniques, quality models, corporate strategy and philosophies (values and cultures that build on the teachings of quality gurus)--can and should lay a foundation for ethical behavior throughout an organization.

Similarly, "Quality's Path to the Boardroom" (p. 41) makes a case for integrating quality auditing--such as that required by the ISO 9001 or ISO 14001 standards--into the financial auditing now required by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. Quality auditing could even create a useful framework.

Getting down to specifics for quality professionals, "Ethics, Auditing and Enron" (p. 34) offers concrete ways internal auditors can impact behavior within their organizations. Though the article addresses auditors, you could apply many of the tips to the work of other quality practitioners.

Besides considering these suggestions, another way you can play a part is to know and follow the ASQ Code of Ethics. In my view, this code and ethical behavior in general come down to personal integrity--which should be practiced by everyone working in an organization and demanded of co-workers, leadership and the organizational culture.

The recently released report on the Columbia shuttle disaster included a strong indictment of the culture at NASA, pointing out problems such as failure to sustain improvements recommended after the 1986 Challenger explosion and management's refusal to heed input from personnel such as engineers. (Watch for a follow-up article in a future issue of QP.)

It's a shame it takes a tragedy of this magnitude--or, on a lesser scale, a corporate scandal--to make people care again about integrity and ethical behavior. But it also presents a golden opportunity to speak up at our own organizations and keep pushing to make ethical standards the very fabric and foundation of the culture.

Debbie Phillips-Donaldson

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