I was a senior in high school when the Challenger exploded.
I was in class at the time of the launch. I think it was chemistry. The teacher had rolled in a television set for all of us to watch. I remember how quiet the whole school got after the explosion. Not just my classroom; the whole school.
Allan McDonald never stayed quiet. McDonald was the engineer who refused to approve the Challenger launch. He knew that the O-rings at the booster rocket joints would likely fail in the unusually low temperatures of launch day. He spoke up before the launch but was overruled by his company’s executives.
Then, 12 days later, in a closed hearing of a presidential commission investigating the explosion, he spoke up again and corrected the record after a NASA official tried to suggest that McDonald had approved the launch. Embarrassed, his company demoted him in an effort to silence him. When the US Government heard of the demotion, it threatened to remove the company from all future NASA contracts. McDonald was promoted back and put in charge of redesigning the rocket joints.
After his retirement in 2001, he became an advocate of ethical decision-making to engineering students, to engineers and to managers, both in the private sector and in government agencies.
He never stayed quiet on the importance of doing the right thing.
McDonald passed away on Saturday.
He can rest in peace.
“Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with the important matters.”Albert Einstein
Today we will be presented with numerous opportunities to speak or to remain silent.
Each opportunity will either build trust or destroy it. Being truthful, and true to yourself, is a sure way to build trust.
How would you know, you might ask?
Think of a time you were lied to.
In a recent piece, Andre Pinto reminds us that “exposure to other people’s dishonesty might lead us to be dishonest as well.”
Pinto points out that our moral compass is not fixed and can be swayed by how things are done around us. It can be swayed either way, so that other people’s honesty can also lead us to be more honest. The same goes with trust, respect or integrity.
This highlights the danger of sharing a disproportionate number of real cases of wrongdoing within a company, a practice that many ethics and compliance programs have adopted. By sharing bad examples on a weekly or monthly or even quarterly basis, we risk normalizing the behavior and increasing its frequency.
I have written before about the benefits of recognition. My take has usually been that when we “recognize” one person for their good behavior, what we actually do is help everyone else recognize the behavior we want to see. Well, social science tells us that if they see it often enough, they might start adopting it. Thus, we ought to favor positive examples over negative ones.
People want to fit in.
For centuries, if we didn’t fit in with the tribe, we could not survive. We lost access to food, shelter and fire. We had to fit in or die.
This instinct is still with us. And so we want to fit in with our family, with our friends, with our colleagues. This means that we’ll sometimes do things we don’t believe in just to be accepted.
This heightens the importance of corporate culture. If the culture tolerates small acts of cheating, lying and stealing, newcomers will soon understand what they need to do to fit in. Add the snowball effect, and eventually you have big acts of dishonesty.
Why not create a culture of trust, respect and integrity instead?
In many countries, employment is “at will”.
This means that we can get a job without having to sign a multi-year contract and we can quit anytime we like if a better opportunity presents itself.
It also means that an employer can let us go at any time for convenience. If the economy is bad, they can let us go. If they don’t like the types of movies we watch on the weekend, they can also let us go.
There is more room for abuse in such “unregulated markets”, and most of the employment abuses comes from employers (employees don’t kill their income just to spite their employers). This is why corporate values are important. Values like trust, respect and integrity can prevent jerks from firing employees for no good reason. Where there is no rule, values fill the gap.
Leaders should meet regularly with HR to review recent terminations, with a goal to verify that they were both legal and ethical.
Many leaders now include a few words about the importance of ethics when addressing employees.
It’s usually at the end of the speech. There’s a short and dramatic pause, the CEO puts on a serious look and says: “Now, let me add that none of this matters unless we do things the right way…”
Those endings are important but, eventually, they feel formulaic and employees tune out.
There is another, perhaps better way.
Suggest that your leader sprinkle ethical stories throughout her speech instead, without using the word “ethics” with a capital E. She can describe how the company created trust with a new customer, which led to a big win. She can share how many employees – including executives – were disciplined for being disrespectful to others during the last quarter. She can explain how the company increased its spend with a supplier who acted with integrity. And so on.
These passing comments will have a greater impact because they are more real than an abstract Ethics Speech.
Collect your stories, share them, and watch how they become part of who you are as an organization.
Organizations are complex.
To operate them efficiently, rules are helpful. When you see something that works, it helps to create a process – a rule – around it. The rule creates an algorithm that can be preserved and shared and followed.
At the same time, the rule preserves the status quo. It creates rigidity. When change inevitably comes, resistance leads to breakage.
What if we could adapt before we break?
That’s where values come in. Values are flexible. We can perform with integrity and show respect and foster trust in various ways. We can change the rules as necessary without changing our values.
Values are to adaptive performance what rules are to tactical performance.
“If you know what’s good for you, you’ll do as I say.”
A few generations ago, this was a common threat issued to children by parents. It was effective because it appealed to the child’s self-interest. No nagging. No pleading. No argument about good or bad. Children immediately understood the practical benefits of changing their behavior.
No one would recommend replicating this practice with adults in the workplace today. But the concept of appealing to our employees’ self-interest when promoting ethics and compliance still has merit. We have safety policies because we want our employees to go home safely every night. We provide training and implement controls so that they don’t inadvertently break the rules and lose their job. We ask them to promote organizational integrity because it gives them access to the resources they need to be successful.
Our job as E&C professionals is to protect the organization and its employees. Their wellbeing is closely connected. If we can show this connection (not pontificate), we are more likely to get compliance.
Today, make a list of all the tasks you accomplish as an ethics & compliance professional.
When the day is done, review your list. At least one task, if not all of them, will have brought value to one or more of the employees you serve.
Share that with your E&C colleagues, on your blog, on your organization’s intranet, with a professional organization like the ECI, on Twitter, on LinkedIn.
This is a time when we need to see more examples of trust, respect and integrity.
In the workplace and beyond.
Today is an academic day for me. I am presenting at Bentley University in the afternoon and teaching at UConn in the evening.
In many fields of study, the role of the teacher is to impart knowledge on her students. We expect English and math students to learn facts about these topics.
With business ethics, my aim is different. I seek to influence behavior.
I teach to move my students along the ethical leadership spectrum, from ethically unaware (in some situations) to ethical leaders. I teach that culture is an outcome, that it can be measured and improved. I teach about organizational integrity because personal integrity is not enough.
My quizzes and tests cannot measure my success. The real tests will be administered when my students enter the workforce. Will they recognize the ethical dilemma? Will they make the right decision? Will they implement it in a way that inspires others to do the right thing?
I don’t expect for a second that all my students will ace these real-life tests.
I can only hope that some will, some of the times.
And that it’ll make a difference.