Coke & Pepsi take corporate ethics to a new and refreshing level
In May, Pepsi received a letter at their corporate office offering to sell them Coke’s new recipe. Pepsi responded by calling Coke executives and revealing the plot. Together, officials from the two companies called the FBI and worked with the Bureau to set up a sting operation. The sting resulted in the arrest of three individuals, including the Coke secretary, on May 23’rd. A Pepsi spokesman was quoted as saying, “we were just doing what any responsible company would do. Despite the fierce competition in this industry, it should also be fair.” Meanwhile, Coke CEO Neville Isdell stated that the incident “underscores the responsibility that we each have to be vigilant in protecting our trade secrets.”
Pepsi could have ignored the letter, leaving Coke to deal with a dishonest employee on their own. It would have been easier. But there was much more at stake here than simply a matter of corporate ethics, and executives at both companies recognized it. It might sound cynical to say that both CEO’s recognized the photo op presented in the situation although there might be some truth to it. In fact, both companies, American business icons to say the least, had much to gain by separating themselves from the myriad of other big name companies recently plagued by ethics scandals. Notwithstanding, both CEO’s knew that there was nothing more sacred in business than the secret(s) of each company’s success. Both knew that this was potentially bigger than both of them. Catching and prosecuting the alleged thief was the honorable thing to do. And cooperating in doing so was the only way to accomplish this.
Honesty and dishonesty within any organization begins at the top. An ethical organization does not become so by accident. It takes a determined CEO who makes high ethical standards one of his/her priorities. It has been said that employees only care about what their boss cares about. This is basically true. It’s the filter down theory. But if a CEO is ethically neutral or worse, ethically challenged, the likelihood exists that the rest of the organization will be a breeding ground for impropriety. However, when managers present examples of superior ethical conduct the rest of the organization will get the idea.
Theft of trade secrets is a serious federal crime with stiff consequences. It is investigated at the federal level because the very essence of our nation’s commerce system is at stake. A company’s proprietary intellectual property is what gives it competitive value in the market place.
Companies can help safeguard trade secrets by doing proper background checks on its employees. Credit reports should be part of the package for management employees and employees with audit or accounting responsibilities. For senior executive and board level screenings, federal criminal, SEC, and civil searches should be included. A properly structured exit interview can be instrumental in uncovering ethics problems in any organization. Protection of client lists, suppliers, and other sensitive data can be accomplished through proper controls that restrict internal access to such material. Penetration testing of intranet and internet based systems should be considered as part of your overall security program. Finally, access control systems that provide an audit trail can help secure your building and key internal areas.