People tease me about my interest in poker. Is an ethics professional allowed to gamble?
My favorite poker game is Texas Hold’em. I like it because it’s mostly a game of skill, with the element of chance greatly reduced.
When you play enough poker, you start thinking about odds in other areas of your life, like when I see an employee misbehave at work. Let me explain and give you a simple example.
You are playing Texas Hold’em and your hole cards are of the same suit, say hearts. The flop reveals one more heart, and the turn is a heart as well. All you need is one more heart on the river to make your flush, which we’ll assume would be the winning hand.
What are your odds of getting that heart? Well, you know that there are 9 hearts left somewhere in the 46 cards that are still face down (either in the deck or face down in front of the other players). So you have about a 1 in 5 chance that the next card will be a heart.
Should you bet? Well, that depends on the size of the bet and the size of the pot. If you must bet $1 and the pot has $10 in it, it’s a good bet. Why? Because if you played that hand 5 times, you would lose $1 four times and win $10 one time. Over the long run, this is a winning move.
Conversely, if you had to bet $10 into a $40 pot, it would be a bad bet.
So what does this have to do with bad behavior at work?
Well, take the employee who steals $50 from the petty cash box at the reception desk. In some way, he is betting his $50,000 salary that he won’t get caught stealing $50. What he is essentially doing is betting $50,000 into a $50 pot. As we’ve seen, this is a good bet only if his odds of getting caught are lower than 1000/1. Given the financial controls around petty cash, the workplace cameras, other employees walking by, it’s clearly not a good bet.
We’ve all heard of the small-time thieves making this common mistake, impulsively robbing a convenience store with a sign on the door warning them of camera surveillance and that the cash register never contains more than $200. On the other hand, professional criminals make much better bets, going for big rewards after careful planning.
We see employees (and politicians, and celebrities, etc.) make these bad bets all the time. Harassment, discrimination, conflicts of interest – you name it. They bet their reputation and future earnings on small pots when the odds are against them.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that employees should carefully plan bigger scams. What I’m saying is that an employee’s odds of getting away with wrongdoing in the modern corporation are very low. Too low to bet their future earnings and reputation.
We all have so much good to give, why not stack the odds in our favor?