Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 27;   July 2, 2003:

Tornado Warning

by

When organizations go astray ethically, and their misdeeds come to light, people feel shocked, as if they've been swept up by a tornado. But ethical storms do have warning signs. Can you recognize them?

On June 15, 2002, BBC News reported on the prosecution of the accounting firm Arthur Andersen for its role in the collapse of Enron. The prosecution's star witness was David Duncan, who had been in charge of the Enron audit team. He testified that he had signed an agreement with his employer to present a united front, and to claim that neither he nor his employer had done anything wrong.

Oops. Bad idea.

A tornado

A tornado. Photo courtesy U.S. National Weather Service.

The tornado that followed wrecked his career, wrecked Andersen, and wrecked lives. Knowing what has happened since then, it's too easy to ask, "What was he thinking?" A more interesting question: "What can I learn from this?"

When Mr. Duncan received that "united front" agreement, he received a tornado warning, but he probably didn't recognize it. Can you recognize tornado warnings? Here are a few examples. If you hear or see these things, take cover.

I agree, but we can't actually say that
This could be a signal that the group is convincing itself that half-truths or lies are OK. Both are toxic — it's much better to deliver the whole miserable truth in a caring way, taking responsibility for your part of the bad news.
Don't send me memos or email. Call instead.
When you receive an
ethical tornado warning,
take cover
Sometimes, when people ask this, they're trying to avoid a paper (or electronic) trail. Ask yourself why.
Shred this after reading
This could be an attempt to erase the paper trail. Rule of thumb: if your work involves a shredder or pulverizer but not a government security clearance, you could be in a gray area or worse.
Delete this email after reading
This request is naïve. Erasing electronic trails takes a lot more than the delete button in Outlook.
Go through your files and remove and shred any documents that refer to this
Translation: (a) get an attorney, and (b) get a new job. In that order.
What I'm about to tell you doesn't leave this room
You know three things if the material is true. First, it came into the room from someplace, which means it's already outside the room. Second, it will continue to propagate from wherever it is. Third, you're now on the list of possible leakers.
You don't want to know
You're in charge of deciding whether you want to know. One alternative to knowing or not knowing is putting some distance between you and this mess.
I'd like it to come from you
When this request comes from someone who would be the normal deliverer of "it," ask yourself if you really are the most eloquent, compassionate, or articulate person around. If not, it's possible that delivering "it" could be dangerous.

The survivors of tornados are the people who got out of the tornado's path. Listen for tornado warnings, and be prepared to move out of the way. Go to top Top  Next issue: Corrosive Buts  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

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Related articles

More articles on Ethics at Work:

Two infants exchanging secretsYou Have to Promise Not to Tell a Soul
You're at lunch with one of your buddies, who's obviously upset. You ask why. "You have to promise not to tell a soul," is the response. You promise. And there the trouble begins.
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If you approve or evaluate proposals or requests made by others, you've probably noticed patterns approval seekers use to enhance their success rates. Here are some tactics approval seekers use.
The Costanza MatrixThe Costanza Matrix
The Seinfeld character "George Costanza" is famous for having said, "It's not a lie if you believe it." What if you don't believe it and it's true? Some musings.
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Reporting workplace malpractice can be the right thing to do. And it's often career-dangerous. Here are some risks to ponder before reporting what you know.
Filling a form in hardcopyAppearance Antipatterns: II
When we make decisions based on appearance we risk making errors. We create hostile work environments, disappoint our customers, and create inefficient processes. Maintaining congruence between the appearance and the substance of things can help.

See also Ethics at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Margay cat (Leopardus wiedii)Coming July 6: Fake Requests for Help
When a colleague asks for assistance, we can feel validated, even flattered. But not all requests for help are what they seem. The more devious amongst us can be endlessly creative in employing requests for help to achieve devious ends. Available here and by RSS on July 6.
A micrometer capable of measuring to |plusmn .01 mmAnd on July 13: What Do We Actually Know?
Precision in both writing and speech can be critical in determining the success of collaborations in the modern workplace. Precision is especially important when we distinguish between what we surmise or assume and what we actually know. Available here and by RSS on July 13.

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