Workplace Ethics and The Three Monkeys

by Sharlyn Lauby on November 17, 2009

Broward County, my hometown, has made the national headlines again.  First, it was hanging chads (remember them?), then Anna Nicole Smith, now a Ponzi scheme.  The local news has been crazy lately.

It started a month or so ago with the indictment of three local politicians on federal corruption charges.  Shortly thereafter, another local politician was cited for ethics infractions.  Then, a prominent attorney was accused of running a $1B Ponzi scheme out of his law offices, taking the prestigious firm to the brink of bankruptcy.  So far, one CEO has pleaded guilty to fraud.  The FBI and IRS are camped out here and the local media has dubbed us “Corruption County.” Are the incidents related?  Who knows, but it sure makes for interesting reading.

While I realize you might not care about the specific people or organizations involved, there’s a huge business lesson here I couldn’t resist writing about.

It won’t come as any surprise to you that, for all of these people being accused of wrong-doing, there are an equal number of associated people saying, “I had no clue this was going on.”  For which my reply is – get real.  If your business partner gives you a Ferrari for your birthday or your boss sells you his half-million dollar condo for $100, ask yourself the question – where is the money coming from?  Face it, board members can’t stay in luxury hotels, get nice gifts, and eat fancy meals and totally ignore the balance sheet.  It reminds me of the three monkeys – see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.  Just because they didn’t witness firsthand ethical compromises, company infractions, and possibly even crimes, that doesn’t absolve them from responsibility.  That’s just naïve (and stupid).

monkeys

It can’t be said too many times that people need to speak up when they feel their integrity, or that of the organization they represent, is being compromised.  For example:

  • If you know your boss gave a contract to a friend or family member without following proper procedure, you’re just as guilty for ignoring it.
  • If someone tells you they suspect the purchasing director is using their position for personal gain and you don’t do anything about it…again, you’re as much a part of problem as they are.

When you’re asked to be a part of an organization, do your homework – then do your job.  If you join an organization filled with politics/mismanagement, you become a part of that.  Whether you like it or not.  And, this doesn’t just apply to situations at work.  Sadly, it can apply to our volunteer lives as well.

Saying “I had no clue” is no excuse.  You know it.  And so does everyone else.  You need to decide if you’re going to grow up, grow a pair, and do something about it.  It might not be popular or profitable, but your credibility is at stake.  And what value do you place on that?

Image courtesy of electrons_fishgils

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Rodney Johnson November 20, 2009 at 3:29 pm

Sharlyn, you are spot on with your comments and insight. I refer to these occurrences as “Silent Problems – problems that are being avoided, neglected or going unnotices, 2. problems that are being intentionally silenced.” While individuals might know of them or suspect them, there are many reasons why they are avoided like the plague. And equally important, how individuals can raise the flag on these problems can be challenging, especially dependent on the culture of the organization. For instance I right about our $3.5 Million ponzi scheme up here in Minnesota, aka Tom Petters. This is what I wrote over on my blog .

“Ponzi schemes are an intricate network of finely tuned and disciplined checks and balances. The holders of the scheme understand the consequences of being caught, and will do anything to keep it in the icebox.”

Wally Bock November 21, 2009 at 10:20 am

There are two things I think need to be added to this excellent post.

First, “being aware of” covers a broad range of knowledge. Like the person with a cheating spouse, it’s easy to ignore the warning signs because we trust or love the person doing wrong, or because we just don’t want to know.

The other issue is that knowing puts you in a pre-whistleblower situation. You have to make a decision about what to do next. That decision is not easy because blowing the whistle is often a life changing act that ends badly for the whistleblower. It requires real courage, which we never have enough of.

hr bartender November 23, 2009 at 10:46 am

Wally – These are two excellent points. Thanks for bringing them up.

It’s a real challenge to be the lone dissenting opinion or the only person opposing the status quo. Trust me, I’ve been there. People will attempt to brand you as not being a team player, stubborn, unreceptive to change, etc.

At the end of the day, we all have to live with ourselves. Hopefully whatever decision a person makes is one they can stand up and defend.

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