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

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:

The silhouette of a famous fictional detectiveSome Truths About Lies: I
However ethical you might be, you can't control the ethics of others. Can you tell when someone knowingly tries to mislead you? Here's Part I of a catalog of techniques misleaders use.
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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.
Filling a form in hardcopyAppearance Anti-patterns: 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.
Boeing 737 MAX grounded aircraft near Boeing Field, April 2019On Standing Aside
Occasionally we're asked to participate in deliberations about issues relating to our work responsibilities. Usually we respond in good faith. And sometimes we — or those around us — can't be certain that we're responding in good faith. In those situations, we must stand aside.
NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter, which was lost on attempted entry into Mars orbitOn Repeatable Blunders
When organizations make mistakes, they sometimes acknowledge them and learn how to avoid repeating them. And sometimes they conceal them or even deny they happened. When they conceal mistakes or deny they occurred, repetition is more likely.

See also Ethics at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Tuckman's stages of group developmentComing December 7: Reaching Agreements in Technological Contexts
Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.
An actual straw manAnd on December 14: Straw Man Variants
The straw man fallacy is a famous rhetorical fallacy. Using it distorts debate and can lead groups to reach faulty conclusions. It's ad readily recognized, but it has some variants that are more difficult to spot. When unnoticed, trouble looms. Available here and by RSS on December 14.

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