3 Things That Cause Ethical Breakdowns in Workplace Culture: Timing a Reminder is Everything


Tensions among senior staff in universities seem to be making the news on a regular basis. Examples include leader strife at Rutgers (blame), Penn State (cascade failure to deal with a crime) and University of Virginia (abrupt leadership goings and comings.)

Last year Forbes described the University of Virginia‘s Board of Visitors vote to unanimously reinstate president, Teresa Sullivan, (a former provost at University of Michigan, by the way), as a “Hollywood ending” to a story that started with her seemingly abrupt ouster which outraged students and faculty and dominated news in higher education.     

If a link is broken, the whole chain breaks. ~ Yiddish proverb

University of Virgina, by neotint, CC Flickr
University of Virgina, by neotint, CC Flickr

In university athletics, we have the 2011 tragic story of former university football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s sexual assault of underage boys.

Before you make any decision, consider its effect on the next seven generations.  ~ Hopi proverb



At the time of this post, we have the breaking story of not only the firing of a Rutgers basketball coach because of abusive behavior  of his players, as shared widely on video, but also high level conflict of senior university administrators over who is responsible.  As the story develops, other details emerge about the senior officials:

On Friday morning, two days after Mr. Rice was fired, Athletic Director Tim Pernetti resigned, and implied that he was being made a scapegoat. He said his initial inclination when he saw the videos last fall was to fire Mr. Rice, but “Rutgers decided to follow a process involving university lawyers, human resources professionals, and outside counsel.”

Robert L. Barchi, the president of Rutgers, placed the blame on Mr. Pernetti and other senior officials who he said recommended that Mr. Rice be suspended rather than fired.

On Friday, the university also released a 50-page report that John P. Lacey, an outside lawyer, prepared last year in response to the abuse allegations. It made clear that Rutgers officials were aware that Mr. Rice’s outbursts “were not isolated”

Source:  The New York Times

 The interviews and documents reveal a culture in which the university was far more concerned with protecting itself from legal action than with protecting its students from an abusive coach.

Source:  The New York Times

Rutgers Football By tenaciousme, Flickr
Rutgers football, by tenaciousme, Flickr

University systems are under great pressure today, yet change tends to move at a glacial pace in higher education.  Add to this a boys-will-be-boys flavor that still permeates athletics today, and you may find Kathleen Lynch’s writings about carelessness among administrators in higher education, with an eye to the male gender, timely and on point:

…[There is a] new managerialism in higher education.  Given the moral imperative on women to do care work (O’Brien, 20071) and on men to be care-less, the carelessness of higher education has highly gendered outcomes.2
Female cheerleaders at the University of Michigan © D. Nystrom
Female cheerleaders, University of Michigan © D. Nystrom

Of course, ethical breakdowns happen everywhere.  Consider the often cited Enron scandal, of 2001, eventually leading to bankruptcy.  Enron’s cited company values of the time are now a cautionary tale of incongruity.  Yet Enron is not just a tale of corrupt leaders.  A follow-up article, Enron: Ten Years After, highlights the systemic nature of leadership intertwined with culture in corporations.  Yet that corporate culture continues to be largely lead by males.  This may link to Lynch’s writings of carelessness.

Enron stated values and vision.
Enron stated values and vision.

Compare this to the the less cited example from the tainted Tylenol scare of 1982.  Johnson and Johnson made good on their values & promises, which were about trust and their company values.  The company lost over $100 million as they bought back ALL unused Tylenol from retailers and consumers, regardless of whether the product came from the factories that were the source of the contamination or not.  Our shrink wrapped safety procedures today, can be directly traced to their example.

Leaders do have blind spots, and make bad decisions, as we all do.  I wrote about the status quo and ethics two years ago citing a Harvard Business Review study, Why do good leaders make bad decisions?

From that study:

One reason major mistakes happen is self-interest. Most people don’t realize self-interest operates at a subconscious level. We’re not even aware of how self-interested we are. 

[Consider] the  John Thain bonus story. Is there anyone who believes that he is not a smart enough guy to figure out that taking or giving [large] bonuses [was not] a sensible thing to do?

Wall Street Journal summary of the HBR decision-making article by Erin White also highlights three lessons including:

People need to recognize that we are biased in every single situation. There’s no such thing as objectivity.  The first thing leaders should do to reduce their odds of making bad decisions is walk into an important decision situation saying, “Ok, I know that we are potentially biased in a variety of ways. Let’s try to identify what those are.”

…we are biased in every single situation. There’s no such thing as objectivity. ~ Erin White 
Keeping ethics and values alive and breathing is the challenge.  In my work, leaders must offer examples and stories that illustrate organizational values.  They must walk the talk constantly, but especially when risk & temptations appear.  Viewing a situation from a variety of perspectives, not just legal or an HR perspective, is important.  

This post by  provides insight into what it take to maintain ethics in an organization.  


© Marek - Fotolia.com


Classroom lessons

Dan Ariely is a great author and his book Predictable Irrationality is a favorite of mine. He recently wrote about an issue he dealt with in his classroom:

….my undergraduate students …promised that if they used their laptops, it would only be for course-related activities like taking notes. However, as the semester drew on…they were Facebooking more and more.   …I became increasingly frustrated.”

…A couple of his students took it upon themselves to set up an experiment. They wrote two emails to the students in class (half would get one email, the other half would get the alternative). In one of the emails, they supplied a link to the purported answers to the final exam. In the other email, they still supplied a link to it but, as a postscript note, they said that the university prohibited gaining any unfair advantage. The results?

A culture of unethical behavior doesn’t come and go quickly. ~ Lance Haun
Using Google Analytics, the students tracked how many people from each group visited the website. …without the honor code reminder, about 69 percent of the class accessed the website with the answers. However, when the message included the reminder about the honor code, 41 percent accessed the website. As it turns out, students who were reminded of the honor code were significantly less likely to cheat. 

Changing the tune

Combining the example from Ariely’s classroom and the code of ethics [60 pages long]  from Enron, I think we get a much clearer picture of what causes ethical breakdowns. It seems to be three parts:

  1. It must be clear — …Ethics should be clear, …no wiggle room, a…no excuse why a person couldn’t read and clearly understand it in a few minutes.
  2. There must be reminders — …When faced with major decisions, a reminder about the code of ethics can be imperative to preventing [lapses by those tempted.]
  3. Look out for culture creep — …Ariely’s class turned into a place where ethical decisions were unclear   …. A culture of unethical behavior doesn’t come and go quickly.

…the third one is the most difficult. 

Lance Haun is Contributing Editor for TLNT.

Leaders are the ones who set the tone.  They can also easily miss things in the complexity of the organizational system.  Enron, Johnson and Johnson, and the classroom cheating examples are three of the sample stories that provide a good range of how challenging it is to consistently walk to talk of ethics in leadership.


Bringing it home:  

What key words come to your mind in observing the behavior in the work cultures you’ve seen?  

How do values, ethics tied to actual behaviors keep work cultures as they are?

Thanks for visiting.  Your comments and shares enrich the discussion.  ~  Deb

Apple photo via flickr.com

1 – O’Brien, Maeve. Source: Gender and Education, Volume 19, Number 2, March2007

 2 – Lynch, Kathleen. “Carelessness: A Hidden Doxa of Higher Education. Arts and Humanities.” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 9.1 (2010)  


Related posts & tools by Deb:

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons license.

Published by dnrevel

Change & transition, Leadership team & organization development. Executive Leadership team coach. My LinkedIn profile: http://www.linkedin.com/in/dnrevel

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