The Washington D.C. Public Schools Chancellor resigned less than 13 months into his tenure after it was discovered he skirted the process for admission to the District’s most coveted high school in order to get his daughter into that school. A bad story got worse when it revealed that he had written the new process himself as part of his efforts to turn around the school system.
Adam Turtletaub spoke for all of us when he expressed amazement on this blog that doping impacted even curling, a sedate-appearing sport that most everyone falls in love with each winter Olympics. The idea that a parent might cheat to advance their child’s interests will cause far less surprise. A couple of years ago Lisa Miller explored the ethical and philosophical depths of this issue in a fascinating article. Miller’s article certainly discussed clear-cut acts of cheating to get advantages for one’s child, but focused more on “something slipperier than blatant cheating, a cut below sneaking answers into an exam, a hazy space where right and wrong seem porous.” Perhaps most sobering are her citations to research that suggests that the children who have been the recipients of this parental philosophy have far less of a moral compass than their elders. Of course, that certainly makes sense, what we do always sends a far more powerful message than what we say.
Remember this when you finally get that promotion and join the executive suite as the ethics and compliance officer. Remember this as you are advancing your career in ethics and compliance. Remember this as you try to figure out what’s going wrong with your program and why your efforts aren’t moving the needle on your corporate culture.
It’s not what we say. It’s what we do. People are smart and savvy. Their eyes are open. They notice when promotions go to those who best fit in with the existing culture, rather than someone who might rock the boat a little or be a bit of a gadfly. They recognize when the CEO, who always talks strongly about ethical leadership and decision making, accepts Super Bowl tickets from the company’s banker. They notice the “by invite only” wine tasting event at the leadership retreat is restricted to a small group of a senior VP’s favored employees and features wines that are triple the cost of the wine served at the dinners attended by the rest of those in attendance. When these folks advance into senior leadership, they know how the game is played regardless of the words in the Code of Conduct.
Culture change is hard. A successful effort to do so requires great consistency in actions at all levels. I believe it also requires us to publicly acknowledge and demonstrate we’ve learned from the failing that inevitably will occur. I’ll give some specific examples in a later post. For now, we can start by opening our own eyes wide, and trying to honestly consider whether our actions reinforce, or counter, the cultural messages we hope our Codes of Conduct send.