Former Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky has been sentenced for acts of sexual abuse committed against young boys. Likely, he'll spend the rest of his life behind bars.
How could this have happened, and how could so many signs have been ignored? Somehow the most basic messages defining right vs. wrong that we learn as children are not being effectively communicated in many of our workplaces. We need to change that. Some of the most important lessons we learn growing up need to be brought to our job.
Haven't you heard or said something like this to your children?
Look, I don't care what happens; you call me if there's a problem. It doesn't matter what time it is, where you are, who you're with, or what's going on. If there's a hint of trouble, if something doesn't seem right, I'm here. You call me. If you can't get home, I'll get you. But you call me. Got it?
When you say it, what you hope is that your child will call you before something bad happens. Parents can remember saying that to their children, and kids remember those voices long after they're adults.
While we remind our children about the rules, we can't think of every way they can go wrong. We cover the most obvious dangers, we remind them of their values—who they are and what's expected. We tell them not to get into bad situations.
But if something happens, call. We repeat that message over and over hoping it will stick. If problems arise, we're there.
In business, there are different traps and dangers. But what remains the same is this: We can't tell our team members about every rule they can violate, every regulation they have to know and every standard they must commit to memory. There are just too many. Communicate them all and few will be taken seriously, remembered and applied.
Even in the face of outrageous criminal action, as with the Penn State tragedy, the risk remains that blatant problems will be ignored because of the boss's power or the sense that the complainant, not the offender, will be the one who ends up being harmed by raising alarms.
The more efficient approach to changing behavior in the workplace is the same with which we grew up. Lay out the basics: Here are things you never do. Remember who you are and what your organization stands for. We live by our values. Learn them, work by them. Bring your issues to us, don't ignore them. We'll protect you when you do.
Here is the kind of message that leaders need to repeat over and over; once a year is not enough.
There will be times when you sense something may not be on target or may be a problem. You might be right; you might be wrong. You might think your boss won't want to hear your concerns, or that if he or she is the problem, that person is too powerful to cross. Or you might think our values are just lip service. They're not. We mean to work by them. Always. Problems will arise. You call me, or text me, email me or write me—or someone else. But let us know. No one will harm you for doing that.
Just as we grow up with consciences driven by knowing the basics and hearing frequently repeated messages, we need to make sure that our workplace values, messages and commitments are just as clear and convincingly expressed, repeated and followed.