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We Are Penn State

What's striking about the Penn State catastrophe is that so many leaders appeared to have failed to take responsibility for stopping awful acts happening in their own “workplace” and community.

November 16, 2011
Related Topics: Leadership Development, Total Quality Management, Change Management, Ethics, Legal
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You're about to cross the street. Someone's preteen daughter walks off the curb as a car speeds toward her. You grab her arm and pull her to safety.

Your neighbor runs to your back door. There's been an accident down the street; someone's hurt. You call 911. You go outside to see what you can do. Later, you call the hospital to make sure all turned out OK.

These are normal, reflexive acts. You're not taught to do them; you just do. They happen all the time.

Failing to grab that young girl or call for an ambulance would be abnormal and extraordinary—a breach of human instinct and decency. In daily instances like these, there's no law telling you to act, no regulation codifying your responsibility, no policy you need to check, nor should there ever be.

Bad people do bad, outrageous, cruel acts. They always have and always will. What's striking to me about the Penn State catastrophe is that so many leaders appeared to have failed to take the same responsibility for stopping vile, awful acts happening in their own "workplace" and community as they would have at the curb or in their home.

Here, they had the benefit of thought as well as reflex to prevent an ongoing disaster involving one of their own colleagues. Yet, if the allegations are true, they failed to act.

Depending on the outcome of ensuing proceedings, this horrible situation may lead to criminal investigations, lawsuits, prison terms for some, and permanent career and reputational ruination for others. Worst of all, assuming these allegations prove true, the victims, many I suspect have yet to be identified, will suffer the rest of their lives.

What must be considered is the dynamic that caused leaders at Penn State to ignore the human reflex that causes us to reach out and help others in more immediate and perhaps lesser moments of danger. Another instinct caused some Penn State leaders to dismiss a basic human inclination to help others in peril. Fear proved more powerful than all of the university's great traditions of service and integrity.

My guess is that Penn State's leaders feared that acting to protect innocent, vulnerable children posed more personal and institutional risk than hoping the situation did not really occur. Perhaps they imagined that if child-molestation suspect and former coach Jerry Sandusky acted as reported then it was a one-time aberration; nothing bad would happen again. All would go away and be forgotten.

Perhaps they thought that if they met the narrow letter of the law, they had done enough and had also hedged their own personal risk. Possibly, they even got legal advice directing them how to make sure they met those procedural safeguards.

They checked a box; they complied. Already, there are calls for new, stricter regulations and laws compelling individuals to report child abuse to law enforcement offices. But that can only do so much, particularly when fear and denial are at work.

Penn State will remain a great university. Over time, the awful association we now have when we hear its name will diminish. The housecleaning of senior leaders who did the minimum or, worse, covered up reports of harm, is a positive first step.

It always is when disaster strikes. But long term, no laws or regulations will protect Penn State or other institutions from other like variations of inhumane behavior.

Instead, what I recommend is that Penn State communicates another message as strong and more moving than its longtime motto "We Are Penn State."

The school's new cheer should be "We Act at Penn State!" Then, leaders should prove over and over that they will welcome issues and will act—decisively and effectively.

Make that a cultural standard more enshrined than winning on the field, and many of our worst disasters in academia and other organizations will be prevented before they cause personal and institutional catastrophe and ruination.

Stephen Paskoff is president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI Inc., a provider of ethics and compliance learning solutions. He can be contacted at info@eliinc.com.

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