Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 27;   July 2, 2003: Tornado Warning

Tornado Warning

by

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.

A tornado

A tornado. Photo courtesy U.S. National Weather Service.

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,
take cover
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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Corrosive Buts  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

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Related articles

More articles on Ethics at Work:

Mark Twain in 1907When You're Scared to Tell the Truth
In the project context, we need to know that whatever we're hearing from colleagues is the truth as they see it. Yet, sometimes we shade the truth, or omit important details. Here's a list of some of the advantages of telling the truth.
BalletWorkplace 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?
A thiefLooking the Other Way
Sometimes when we notice wrongdoing, and we aren't directly involved, we don't report it, and we don't intervene. We look the other way. Typically, we do this to avoid the risks of making a report. But looking the other way is also risky. What are the risks of looking the other way?
A happy dogSome Things I've Learned Along the Way
When I have an important insight, I write it down in a little notebook. Here are some items from my personal collection.
A horseEthical Influence: 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?

See also Ethics at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

British mathematician Christopher Zeeman in 2009Coming October 18: Missing the Obvious: II
With hindsight, we sometimes recognize that we could have predicted the very thing that just now surprised us. Somehow, we missed the obvious. Why does this happen? Available here and by RSS on October 18.
Five almondsAnd on October 25: Workplace Memes
Some patterns of workplace society reduce organizational effectiveness in ways that often escape our notice. Here are five examples. Available here and by RSS on October 25.

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