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:
- Some 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.
- Approval Ploys
- 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.
- Appearance 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.
- On 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.
- On 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
- Coming 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.
- And 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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