A Most Violent Year – Doing What is Most Right
It is rare to say but Hollywood occasionally can provide us with ethics and compliance lessons. My wife and I recently saw the movie, A Most Violent Year. It is worth seeing – not just for entertainment, but also for the ethics and compliance lesson. (Of course, you know your life needs a little jolt when you go the movies only to walk out muttering something about ethics and compliance).
Set in New York City during a time of rampant corruption and violence, a young entrepreneur has built his heating oil business and wants to expand to the next level. His competitors and union drivers conspire against him to steal from him, harass him and turn the local prosecutors against him.
Abel Morales, played by Oscar Issac (a terrific performance), the main character sets out to survive and expand his business despite all the corrupt forces against him. In this environment, Morales refuses to give in and join the forces of corruption, to engage in violent attacks in reprisal and even declines to shoot an attacker. Instead, he exclaims, “I’ve spent my whole life trying not to become a gangster.”
Morales faces a number of ethical quandaries. His employees follow his lead and adhere to a similar code of conduct. Even when employees are beaten, attacked and chased, the employees follow the tone set by Morales.
After being attacked a driver for Morales brings a gun when he returns, ends up shooting at the attackers, and is ultimately arrested and fired by Morales.
The story is not about black and white because Morales himself faces choices that bring his ethics into question. He works as hard as he can to stick by his code of conduct and keep his business going.
In the end, he draws comfort from his important motto – He always does “the most right thing.” I will not give away the end but it is worth seeing this movie to see how his ethical principles guides him.
In the face of extraordinary pressure – violence, corruption, dishonesty and immoral behavior – Morales’ motto sets up a continuous struggle – what path will he take? While it may be obvious, the ethical choice can be difficult to follow. It is a constant tension, like Jacob wrestling with the angel – the tension between right and wrong from an ethical viewpoint is always present.
The popularity of the movie carries a broader message for all of us. Ethics and compliance, honesty and integrity are values that are honored into today’s world. Hollywood has created a movie to confirm this trend and the public is attracted to the message of the movie. While all choices are not black and white, there is room for ethics, and there is value to be gained by avoiding corruption, violence and dishonesty.
Even a popular movie can reflect a social trend. A Most Violent Year carries an important message.
Companies do not operate in a vacuum. They feel pressure from outside social forces. If our society is demanding more from our people and our businesses in the way of ethics, this is a very good trend for companies to recognize and embrace.
A company’s external message is very important to its goodwill and overall reputation. A positive image in the marketplace means higher quality employees are attracted to work at a company; ultimately, a company’s reputation can drive success with consumers.
A company’s board has to identify the important social pressures outside the company, respond to them in fashioning a cultural message, and develop a communications strategy for the internal and external audiences. In today’s environment, ethics has to be at the forefront of this message.