by Rick Brenner
When organizations go astray ethically, and their misdeeds come to light, people feel shocked, as if they've been swept up by a tornado. But ethical storms do have warning signs. Can you recognize them?
On June 15, 2002, BBC News reported on the prosecution of the accounting firm Arthur Andersen for its role in the collapse of Enron. The prosecution's star witness was David Duncan, who had been in charge of the Enron audit team. He testified that he had signed an agreement with his employer to present a united front, and to claim that neither he nor his employer had done anything wrong.
Oops. Bad idea.
The tornado that followed wrecked his career, wrecked Andersen, and wrecked lives. Knowing what has happened since then, it's too easy to ask, "What was he thinking?" A more interesting question: "What can I learn from this?"
When Mr. Duncan received that "united front" agreement, he received a tornado warning, but he probably didn't recognize it. Can you recognize tornado warnings? Here are a few examples. If you hear or see these things, take cover.
- I agree, but we can't actually say that
- This could be a signal that the group is convincing itself that half-truths or lies are OK. Both are toxic — it's much better to deliver the whole miserable truth in a caring way, taking responsibility for your part of the bad news.
- Don't send me memos or email. Call instead.
When you receive an
ethical tornado warning,
- Sometimes, when people ask this, they're trying to avoid a paper (or electronic) trail. Ask yourself why.
- Shred this after reading
- This could be an attempt to erase the paper trail. Rule of thumb: if your work involves a shredder or pulverizer but not a government security clearance, you could be in a gray area or worse.
- Delete this email after reading
- This request is naïve. Erasing electronic trails takes a lot more than the delete button in Outlook.
- Go through your files and remove and shred any documents that refer to this
- Translation: (a) get an attorney, and (b) get a new job. In that order.
- What I'm about to tell you doesn't leave this room
- You know three things if the material is true. First, it came into the room from someplace, which means it's already outside the room. Second, it will continue to propagate from wherever it is. Third, you're now on the list of possible leakers.
- You don't want to know
- You're in charge of deciding whether you want to know. One alternative to knowing or not knowing is putting some distance between you and this mess.
- I'd like it to come from you
- When this request comes from someone who would be the normal deliverer of "it," ask yourself if you really are the most eloquent, compassionate, or articulate person around. If not, it's possible that delivering "it" could be dangerous.
The survivors of tornados are the people who got out of the tornado's path. Listen for tornado warnings, and be prepared to move out of the way. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Ethics at Work
- Workplace Politics vs. Integrity
- A reader wrote recently of wanting to learn "to effectively participate in office politics without compromising my integrity." It sometimes seems that those who succeed in workplace politics must know how to descend to the blackest depths, and still sleep at night. Must we abandon our integrity to participate in workplace politics?
- Ethical Influence: Part II
- When we influence others as they're making tough decisions, it's easy to enter a gray area. How can we be certain that our influence isn't manipulation? How can we influence others ethically?
- Extrasensory Deception: Part I
- Negotiation skills are increasingly essential in problem-solving workplaces. When incentives are strong, or pressure is high, deception is tempting. Here are some of the deceptions popular among negotiators.
- Personnel-Sensitive Risks: Part II
- Personnel-sensitive risks are risks that are difficult to discuss openly. Open discussion could infringe on someone's privacy, or lead to hurt feelings, or to toxic politics or toxic conflict. If we can't discuss them openly, how can we deal with them?
- Telephonic Deceptions: Part I
- People have been deceiving each other at work since the invention of work. Nowadays, with telephones ever-present, telephonic deceptions are becoming more creative. Here's Part I of a handy guide for telephonic self-defense.
See also Ethics at Work for more related articles.
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