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.
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,
- 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.
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More articles on Ethics at Work:
- You 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.
- The Attributes of Political Opportunity: The Basics
- Opportunities come along even in tough times. But in tough times, it's especially important to distinguish
between true opportunities and high-risk adventures. Here are some of the attributes of desirable political
- The Attributes of Political Opportunity: The Finer Points
- Opportunities come along even in tough times. But in tough times like these, it's especially important
to sniff out true opportunities and avoid high-risk adventures. Here are some of the finer points to
assist you in your detective work.
- On the Appearance of Impropriety
- Avoiding the appearance of impropriety is a frequent basis of business decisions. What does this mean,
what are the consequences of such avoiding, and when is it an appropriate choice?
- The 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.
See also Ethics at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
- A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
- And on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
- Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.