If a Tree Doesn’t Fall in the Forest


By Adam Turteltaub

We’ve all heard the Buddhist koan:  “If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

It’s an oft-discussed ancient riddle that is surprisingly apt for compliance.  That’s because when a compliance program works at its best, the tree doesn’t even fall.  Nothing bad happens.  The silence is uninterrupted.  No one gets distracted and life goes on peacefully.

That’s great, but it’s also a problem since people aren’t as good at noting when things don’t happen as when they do.  We all remember when we stubbed a toe.  We all remember feeling the sharp initial pain, followed by hours or days of continued discomfort.

Few remember the moment the pain stopped, and no one ever notices how our toe feels when we don’t stub it.

The problem is made worse because employees don’t rush forward to tell compliance about the crime they almost committed but didn’t because they remembered their training.  And no one says, “Boy, I almost did something unethical but then I remembered the code of conduct.”

So we must be content at looking at the forest and seeing all the trees standing.  And maybe the koan for compliance should be:  “If a tree stands in the forest, and there’s no one there to see it, shouldn’t we be appreciative anyway?”


  1. Our corporate safety program encourages the reporting of “near misses” – there could have been a problem, but-for our well-trained staff who were able to address the issues. Should we encourage our employees to report ethical “near misses”? I can already think of many ways to use such data. Do any existing programs already incorporate this practice?


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