Wherever you live, and wherever you stand on the political spectrum, you probably believe that a significant share of the political elite in your country is irredeemably corrupt and unethical. And wherever you work, it is also likely that you know some senior leaders who do a poor job of conveying tone at the top and do not model or respect the organization’s stated values.

There is plenty of evidence that once people attain power, they are more likely to engage in unethical behavior. The effects of power can even be compared to a form of brain damage: Power makes people less risk-averse, more impulsive and less skilled at reading people and situations.

Nonetheless, impunity seems to be a fact of life. The human need for cognitive consistency goes a long way toward explaining why toxic organizational cultures and abuses of power can persist. A psychological mechanism known as the “just world” phenomenon inclines us to ascribe virtue to the powerful while assigning negative traits to the poor and powerless.

Impunity is a daily issue in the lives of many who work in governance, risk and compliance. Investigating your boss is usually a career-limiting move, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to sustain an ethical culture without the remit or tools to hold senior members of the organization accountable. This contradiction has been driving efforts to amplify the independence, seniority and remit of chief compliance officers.

But today, something interesting is happening. The structures supporting impunity seem to be growing less reliable.

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