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Teaching Big Shots To Behave

It takes the right message and the right messenger to bring big, bad dogs to heel.

October 3, 2003
Related Topics: Ethics, Legal

Big shots make headlines. Whether they’re top-ranked executives, brilliant surgeons, powerful law firm partners or visionary entrepreneurs, when they act, news follows. And lately, the news has not been good. In the past year, ImClone’s Samuel Waksal was imprisoned for insider trading and fraud. Former Salomon Smith Barney telecom analyst Jack Grubman was fined $15 million and banned from the business for life for improper dealings.

    High-profile scandal extends beyond the office of the CEO. In workplaces across the country, a small but recognizable group of top performers are often known as much for their extreme conduct as for the business results they deliver. Their behavior, if not technically illegal, clearly crosses the boundaries of civility and business prudence set for the rest of the workplace. Yet their very prominence means they will come under greater scrutiny when their behavior crosses the line. When top execs are out of control, whoever they are, it can create not only devastating career and personal damage but also catastrophic loss to the organization itself.

    Why this conduct occurs and how it can be prevented, or at the very least stopped, are critical risk-management issues. What is needed are credible organizational structures, effective communication and a commitment to take action against offenders--no matter who they are.

    Improper conduct often is habitual. Some top performers even consider bad behavior a perk of the job. The conduct occurs and is tolerated because the offenders believe that the rules don’t apply to them. They conclude that by virtue of their contributions to the organization--the money they bring in, the power they have, the prestige they command in the industry--they’re immune to the rules that everyone else has to follow.

    The other part of the problem is that in many organizations, virtually all of the other employees, including peers, direct reports, superiors and even board members, believe it, too. Those who could and should rein in the behavior stay silent for fear of rocking the boat. They worry that the big shot will leave or won’t perform as well, or that his or her morale will deteriorate. Lower-level employees may think their complaints won’t be valued because of the leader’s power, contributions and professional status. Bad conduct is tolerated and excused for the supposed good of the business.

    But all of this is changing. A perfect example is the case of the brilliant physician who throws instruments, yells at nurses and humiliates nearly everyone in his path. Faced with numerous lawsuits, nursing shortages, staff dissatisfaction and a general lack of trust by a well-informed patient base, many hospitals and physician practices will no longer tolerate such behavior. They’re taking positive steps to change the workplace culture, measures that can be applied in virtually any business or industry.

    Changing behavior isn’t easy. It requires the right messenger, who must deliver the right message in the right way. Big shots often have big intellects to match. The irony is that what they need to learn is simple compared to the complexities involved in their jobs. What is the right message? It’s simple and direct: Don’t make sexual comments. Don’t give company secrets to friends for financial gain. Don’t use shady accounting to inflate earnings. It tells those who misbehave that their conduct is unacceptable, it jeopardizes the organization and it must change or they will be fired. It counters all challenges to the concept with this simple fact: Your career is on the line. The choice is yours.

    Getting these points across in a way that changes behavior, however, requires the right messenger. Almost invariably, big shots who misbehave have egos that may be even bigger than their intellects. Some will listen only to those with equal clout and professional standing. Frequently, that messenger is a respected peer, a superior, an individual who is viewed as credible in a different profession, or another key figure such as a corporate board member.

    I was at a meeting recently where a prominent surgeon questioned why he needed to spend his time on a discussion about behavior in the workplace. The chief of surgery, an internationally known physician, replied, "Because I’m requiring it and your career depends on it." Not surprisingly, the surgeon’s level of interest increased dramatically.

    By their very nature, hugely successful people often assume that what happened to someone else can’t happen to them. For this reason, even though big shots may not like to listen to lawyers, it often is an attorney who is the most effective at communicating the very real personal and professional risks they could face. Sometimes court-room simulations can take the place of going to court. I’ve seen flashes of insight appear on top executives’ faces after they were asked a few direct and unrelenting questions about their conduct "under oath." That can be far more effective than simply lecturing them about the law and its consequences.

    Ultimately, the most important way to change misbehavior is for everyone to know that the conduct won’t be tolerated no matter who is involved. Organizational leaders and sometimes even board members must be committed to taking action if necessary to protect their institutions from big shots who don’t or won’t get the message. The actions can range from blunt discussions to corrective discipline, therapeutic interventions and, if proper, a resignation or firing. Because of the seriousness of the behavior and the attendant risks, business, professional, legal and human resources representatives should be involved.

    I’ll bet if we asked some of the business hotshots we’ve heard about recently in the news if they would rather have been reined in internally than face the public consequences of their conduct, each would reply, "Why didn’t someone set me straight before all this happened?"

The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.

Workforce Management, October 2003, pp. 16-18 --Subscribe Now!

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