In 1981, Chris Smith, a new hire at a development organization in its infancy called Chemonics International, found himself on a long plane ride to Egypt with the company’s founder and then-CEO, Tony Teele.
Smith had helped write a proposal for USAID’s Basic Village Services project to support municipal development and reconstruction in Egyptian villages. Upon being awarded that contract, Teele asked Smith to get the project started. This involved developing communications with USAID and counterparts, renting an office, hiring local staff, procuring vehicles and office equipment, and many other tasks regulated by U.S. and local laws.
Teele gave Smith a copy of the contract with its complex scope and regulations. Smith flipped through it and noted that 10 pages of technical material were followed by 10 times as many pages of regulations. More than 30 years later, Smith — a senior vice president and the organization’s corporate ethics officer — still recalls the exchange that followed:
“I said, ‘Do I have to read all that stuff in the back?’ Tony said, ‘Yes, you have to read it.’ I said, ‘Everything?’ He said, ‘Every. Single. Word.’ I asked why, and he said, ‘Because those are the rules. In order to follow them, you have to know the contract inside and out.’”
“Improving the lives of people around the world may be the reason we come to work, but ethical conduct is an essential condition of how we carry out our work,” explained Smith.
As Chemonics grew, it established a full-time ethics officer position and in 2004 adopted a global code of ethics — Living Our Values — years before this was mandated for all implementing partners. Chemonics’ code of ethics provides a framework for sound decision-making, lays out 10 fundamental principles to equip staff and partners to identify ethical issues, and provides resources for asking questions and reporting concerns. Since adopting the code and naming an ethics officer, Chemonics has presented Living Our Values training to thousands of staff in more than 100 countries.
In January 2014, Chemonics consolidated several key departments that perform key ethics and compliance activities into a single unit under Smith’s leadership, the Risk Management Division. Within the division, the Office of Business Conduct promotes honest and responsible business practices by delivering training, providing guidance on ethical issues, and addressing reports of alleged misconduct; the Financial and Compliance Review Department review field-office transactions and procedures; and the Office of Contracts, Compliance, and Policy sets standards, conducts reviews, and provides oversight for grants and procurement activities. Integrating these groups will improve coordination, effectiveness, and efficiency while helping to mitigate risks.
Smith says his division will play an important role in helping Chemonics to continue to manage resources efficiently and effectively, making improvements to our business processes as needed.
“Our main client, USAID, holds its partners to high standards of ethics and compliance. But the good partners, the successful ones, hold themselves accountable and work proactively to promote a culture of integrity,” he said.