I recently finished Donna Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History. It’s a fascinating, rather dark story of students in a small, New England college who are part of an even smaller group studying classics with one professor. Here’s the first sentence:
The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.
The remainder of the book describes how this all happened: how a group of smart (hey, their private conversations are in classical Greek!), mostly rich, mostly well-travelled young people came to kill and think it was normal and necessary to do so.
As I was pondering this, I came across an article in the February 24, 2014 issue of Time Magazine. It discusses the cheating practices that have come to light among Air Force personnel at some of our ICBM missile bases. Staff there have to take monthly tests to ensure they stay on top of critical information, and dozens, if not hundreds of them have been found to be cheating on those tests. As one former officer said, “I felt guilty about it, because my four years at the [Air Force] academy taught me that was wrong…But after a while, my friends and I joined with the herd in helping each other out.” Again, a group of presumably pretty bright, educated, committed and principled young people going terribly wrong.
This total reinterpretation of ethics and morals can also happen when people have nothing but the best motives. For instance, an organization working to help homeless people with medical issues begins fudging on reports a bit to get more Medicaid money to them (they really need and deserve it!) This can easily happen in the name of doing good, and even more easily happen if a group feels victimized, or is working with someone they feel is victimized. Doesn’t the end justify the means?
So, what does all this have to do with our workplaces? Unfortunately, everything. Every workplace creates its own culture. The more isolated the work group (office, unit, department, school, program…), the easier it is for staff to look only to each other to reinforce their ethical standard. Once they start telling each other it’s ok to do something they may initially feel queasy about, they start to believe it’s ok. Then, it’s only a matter of time when they no longer even question what they’re doing.
So what can you do to ensure that’s not happening in your workplace? Here are some questions to ask:
- Are there good checks and balances in place?
- Are managers held accountable for knowing what is going on in their areas?
- Do we listen to people who raise ethical questions about how something is being done, or do we shut them down as troublemakers?
- Are we clear about our organization’s values, and do we regularly talk with employees about how those play out in our workplace?
- Do we discuss real-life ethical issues in staff meetings and trainings, and work through how to deal with them?
- Do we ensure transparency in all aspects of the work?
Going sideways from what we know is “right” is all too easy. Take positive steps to ensure your workplace follows good ethical and professional practices. What other questions might you ask, or what else might you do to address this complex issue? Let us know! ~Daphne Schneider