• United States

Doing the right thing, MCI style

Feb 16, 20046 mins

We ace MCI’s ethics test; has the carrier learned its lesson?

What would Julie do? That’s the question MCI’s 55,000 employees have been trained to ask themselves and each other every day as the carrier seeks to remake its image in the wake of the more than $9 billion accounting scandal that led it into the largest bankruptcy in history.

It’s also the question I pondered two weeks ago when MCI agreed to let me take its mandatory ethics course.

The course, which I took while sitting in front of a computer at MCI’s Ashburn, Va., headquarters, consists of a 30- to 60-minute online program that confronts me with a series of ethical situations. The most memorable involves Julie, a fictitious MCI employee who needs my help to navigate the dangerous and sometimes murky waters of telecom finance. Should she ignore the error she discovers in a colleague’s financial report as this co-worker suggests? Or should she confront the colleague, who is a friend, and get the mistake fixed? Armed with the program’s six steps for making ethical decisions, I’m able to steer Julie down the right path.

“People at MCI are really very embarrassed about what happened at their company,” says Nancy Higgins, who joined the carrier in October as its first chief ethics officer. “Employees are really happy to see the company spending the time [on ethics training].”

MCI, which is widely expected to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection by April, has gone beyond ethics requirements placed upon it by the bankruptcy court and Securities and Exchange Commission. The carrier only had to put about 1,200 executive and financial employees through ethics training, but Chairman and CEO Michael Capellas insisted upon training the whole company. The training requires employees to think through a set of theoretical ethical dilemmas ranging from basic to extreme (Are you justified if you kill an attacker in order to defend your family?).

While it’s too soon to say whether the program will bring about cultural change at MCI or wind up as an elaborate public relations exercise, the carrier appears to be taking its opportunity for a second chance seriously.

For example, MCI chose not to assemble its ethics program with any fly-by-night outfit, but rather with New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies’ Corporate Learning Services. The program took nine months to develop, though the carrier had to hustle to get it in front of employees last fall after the General Services Administration (GSA) banned MCI from bidding on new government contracts because of questions it had regarding the company’s ethics and corporate governance programs. (The GSA has since lifted the restriction.) MCI put 20,000 employees through the program one week and another 20,000 the next, straining the Web servers hosted by the university.

At MCI headquarters, where about 5,000 employees work, the company’s fresh focus on ethics is hard to miss, from the “What would Julie do?” T-shirts to banners and posters down hallways and in conference rooms that remind employees that “Our code is the standard, you make the difference” and “Do the right thing, because it’s the right thing to do.”

The latter message could also be called Capellas’ mantra. Not only has he repeated it in speeches and at press conferences, but it’s in much of MCI’s printed employee material, such as its 23-page code of ethics and business conduct.

“Do the right thing” is also one of the company’s 10 guiding principles, which are affixed to badges that employees wear around their necks along with their security tags. Also on the list is “Set the tone at the top,” “Avoid conflicts of interest,” and “Set metrics and report results accurately.”

Communicating the company’s message of integrity and educating employees on how to avoid misconduct is an ongoing effort for Higgins, who previously oversaw ethics at Lockheed Martin and Boeing. “We can’t deal with any of the problems we don’t know about. We want to create an environment where people will feel comfortable reporting [questionable ethics],” she says.

This notion is one of the first subjects I am presented with as I start the carrier’s training course. I like being told that I can contact MCI’s ethics office “without fear of retaliation” though being informed that the office would make “every effort” to keep my identity confidential doesn’t exactly give me the warm fuzzies.

Higgins says there are certain actions over which MCI doesn’t have control. For instance, if the misconduct I report results in legal prosecution, MCI couldn’t prevent certain information from being revealed if the company was subpoenaed.

One way MCI addresses such concerns is through an anonymous toll-free number where employees can seek additional clarity on any topic covered in the training or report suspected unethical practices. MCI says it logged more than 400 calls into this system in November, a tenfold jump from July, before the training program went into effect.

Another message stressed in MCI’s training program is that employees are expected to go beyond the “morality of duty,” which is minimum by law.

Malden Mills, the maker of Polartec clothing and no stranger to bankruptcy court, is presented as a prime example of a company that went beyond the call of duty for its employees. In the wake of a devastating fire in 1995, the Lawrence, Mass., company kept all 3,000 of its employees on the payroll as it rebuilt its facilities.

While Malden Mills’ effort was clearly a good corporate deed, I can’t help but wonder how the example might make MCI employees feel about their company. Those who have stayed with MCI through the bankruptcy process have seen 22,000 colleagues let go, and another 1,700 are on the chopping block this year. Not exactly a feel-good story.

Though what does feel good is getting through the fifth and final module of the course, where I’m faced with a certification statement. Here I have the opportunity to verify that I am focused on building integrity at MCI and will abide by the company’s code of ethics and business conduct. I seize the opportunity and click “submit.”

After all, like any good business journalist, I have no problem with trying to keep companies honest.

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