Today I’m pissed. Today I’m disappointed. Today I know why I do my job. And today I know why the profession I serve will never go away.
Today Little League stripped the winning team from the 2014 World Series of its title because of something the adults did: they changed the boundaries of their district to help pack the team with good players.
The kids did nothing wrong. They likely didn’t know what was going on. It’s not like kids stare at Little League boundary maps to figure out how to reconfigure them.
It was the adults who came up with the plan. Who didn’t follow the process. Who knew what they were doing, and who wanted to teach the boys how to win, and forgot the other lessons sports can teach.
Now a group of young boys from the Jackie Robinson West Little League in Chicago are no longer champions. They will have to be more adult than the adults they relied on, and live with their loss.
And to make this even worse, the name of Jackie Robinson, a man whose name is inextricably linked with integrity, now has his name linked with a bunch of cheaters.
I have served the compliance community since 2000. First at a compliance training company, and then at the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics and Health Care Compliance Association. In that time I have heard people repeatedly lament the crisis in ethics in business. I heard it at the time of Enron, Worldcom and the others. I have heard the cries renewed after the mortgage meltdown. And I have heard the smug say, “Business ethics, isn’t that an oxymoron?”
There is no crisis in business ethics. Cheating is endemic in business. It is, just as it is elsewhere, even in Little League. And it’s time we accept it. That doesn’t mean we should give up. But it’s time we think about ethics and compliance failures as being as human as love and hate.
The whole of human history has shown that people, when given the chance, will bend the rules to their end and do far more awful things to each other.
Religions have long lists of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” because they know who we are and what we will do.
There’s even evidence that we are wired to cheat. Dan Ariely, in his must-read book The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty demonstrates how willing we are to cheat when given the opportunity, even when the benefits of doing so are negligible.
So it’s time to stop being shocked when we find cheating. It’s time to stop acting as if there is an epidemic of business ethics failures. The problem is endemic. There will be inflection points when it is worse, but it isn’t going away.
And when it comes to ethics and compliance programs, there is a goal, but there is not an end to the game. We will never end unethical, non-compliant behavior, because we will always deal with people and their capacity to disappoint. Our job is to make it harder to cheat. Our job is to teach people that the rules apply to them. Our job is to then check to see if despite everything people are doing what they shouldn’t. And then to figure out new ways to keep them from doing so.
Those are our goals. But there is no finish line.
That may sound futile. And in some ways it is. But it is still a goal worth striving for.
If we can make it harder for people to cheat, if we can prevent them from breaking the law, if we can find the wrongdoing before it spirals out of control. If we can prevent the next wave of scandals that costs millions their job, and if we can prevent kids from losing their championship titles, then we have accomplished something. We have made an impact on people’s lives.
And we can feel good about living up to the words Jackie Robinson penned that serve as his epitaph: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”