Two scandals this week couldn’t seem more different. One involves allegations of pedophilia sex at a university, Penn State and the other financial shenanigans at a large Japanese corporation, Olympus Corp. Most in the public relations field would exclaim that both matters require “crisis management”, but there is a closer commonality than that. We have to look at the underlying cause of these scandals to see what they share in common.
In many crisis situations the crisis comes about by an outside force or a factor beyond an organization’s control or ability to anticipate. There are, of course, natural disasters. There can be strikes, new legislation, unexpected competition, employee dishonesty, product contamination and the list goes on. Most organizations are “forgiven” or the matter is soon forgotten if the issue is dealt with promptly. Even the BP Gulf oil spill has receded from our memories because the company dealt with the calamity, no matter how ineptly.
But certain “crises” are either created or exacerbated by an organization itself. There are many participants, willing or scared or just amoral who put the organization first. These types of issues should not be looked upon as crises but as severe ethical failures. Oftentimes the principal players either feel they have no choice, or stick their collective heads in the sand or worst of all, feel they won’t be caught and therefore have no compunction about doing what they see as best for the organization. This is what Penn State and Olympus have in common –people have done something unconscionable and others who know about it do nothing or as little as possible. No one wants to be a whistle blower. Willingly or unwillingly, everyone wants to be a loyal team player.
From politicians to entertainers to corporate CEO’s, there is an ever-growing tendency to believe “I can get away with it”, or “it’s not my problem”, or “let’s not rock the boat” or “I’m not going to stick my neck out”.
These days the words “ethics” and “morals” are used interchangeably Elijah Weber described the difference this way:
“Morals, quite simply, are beliefs about right and wrong conduct….They do not require reason, consistency, or thorough analysis in their initial shaping or practical application…. I can believe that lying is wrong because my grandmother told me it was, and that is what I believe. No further justification is required. Ethics, on the other hand, is a reason based cumulative system of moral decision making. It is built upon one or a few basic principles and requires that we be thorough, honest, and comprehensive in making statements about right and wrong. Ethics is about building the kind of world we want to live in, and developing a consistent process by which to achieve this. Ethics is an advanced expression of morality.”
I like this analysis of ethics: a few basic principles that require that we be thorough, honest, and comprehensive in making statements about right and wrong. It is about building the kind of world we want to live in…Do we wish to live in a world where we turn a blind eye to child sexual abuse? Do we want to turn a blind eye to Ponzi schemes and product failings and financial manipulations built on sand that will have severe consequences to investors, employees, and consumers? I think not.
No one is naive enough to think that every company, every charitable organization, every university will adhere to the straight and narrow but wouldn’t it be refreshing if we could count on ethical behavior most of the time. Wouldn’t it also be nice if every honest whistle blower who performed a public service wasn’t maligned and attacked as a weasel or turn-coat? Wouldn’t it be interesting if every organization that breached ethical norms, faced its predicament responsibly Since it is not possible to have a perfect world, shouldn’t we at least shine a spotlight on those who perpetuate bad conduct no matter how revered, competent and respected they may have been?
I fear that the opposite usually occurs. The whistleblower is a turncoat. The person who tried to do the right thing didn’t do enough. The head honcho and the organization are protected as best as possible. The little guy gets thrown under the bus.