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Source Manager's Journal: Reducing Temptation

Jan. 20, 2008 — A recent headline in The New York Times read "Report Sketches Crime Costing Billions: Theft From Charities." Headlines such as this one or reports of fraud in religious organizations typically produce head-shaking and the conclusion that moral values are in decline. They should not. In our current religious climate, there is a prevailing notion that "good people," that is, those who believe what we believe, would never do such things. It is just this kind of thinking that produces an organizational environment that makes these transgressions more likely.
There is a difference between moral failings and a moral breakdown. When people steal money or engage in other forms of corruption it is usually the result of a moral failing. It is not moral relativism to state that, in most instances, some responsibility must rest with those who have created the temptation.
In organizations, it is the responsibility of leadership and management to install systems and processes that reduce temptation to an absolute minimum. There are some organizations in which this is very difficult. For example, a police officer pulls over a car whose driver is behaving suspiciously. The trunk is opened and there are piles of cash, obviously from illegal drug sales, strewn about. Nobody knows how much is there, and if the officer stuffed a few thousand into his pockets, who would ever know? This is a temptation that is very difficult to eliminate, and, in some form, it is known in every country in the world. But even here, there are basic systems, processes or tactics that can control wrongdoing.
The Virgin Islands is one of those places that has a reputation for this kind of dishonesty. And, as in most places, its costs go beyond the dollars lost. By not closing off as many occasions of sin as possible, a climate of temptation is created. It in turn feeds a loss of trust, of self-respect and honor. In organizations that are faith or honor-based, it produces the stench of hypocrisy as people become liars to cover up what they have done. For example, possibly the worst aspect of elite athletes using illegal performance-enhancing drugs is that, in the end, they are often revealed to be liars. One temptation has led to another. Unchecked, this dynamic can bring down the whole house as it has in sports such as cycling and track and field, and financial services companies that engage in insider trading and other corrupt practices.
In government and the non-profit sector, it is critical to install the systems, processes and checks and balances that eliminate temptation. It is not always easy. These checks are sometimes expensive or uncomfortable. For example, non-profit boards must not be too close to the executives that they are responsible for overseeing. They have to ask the hard questions, even if they have known these leaders for years and think that they are doing a great job. Anyone who has sat on a non-profit board knows how awkward this can. Some know the consequences of not asking these questions after someone has succumbed to temptation.
The same is true in government. Here systems and processes are critical because government deals with so many people and groups who are looking for something. And we know that at least some of them are willing to do things that are unethical or illegal to get their way. It is the responsibility of top leadership and management to protect managers and staff from temptation.
What are the most effective tools for creating an environment in which temptation has been lowered to an irreducible minimum? Here is a broad framework:
– Build ethical checks into the hiring process. A basic step is to reduce temptation by screening out potential tempters and temptresses. Specific interview questions and serious reference checks are useful in this respect.
– Constantly be aware that the leader is the role model who defines the culture, its norms and behaviors. If he or she is seen as being deficient or taking ethical liberties, the message goes out to everyone at every level of the organization. Communication of our high moral and ethical standards is an important function, and the messages must be consistent with what people see.
– Implement basic systems, processes and checks and balances that remove temptation, especially where financial management is concerned. Trust everyone, tempt no one.
– Avoid any perceptions of conflicts of interest. As the Bush Administration has repeatedly demonstrating, putting hens in charge of the chicken coop is a recipe for moral and ethical disaster. A useful question: how do we think this – whatever "this" is – would look in a newspaper or blog headline?
– Be crystal clear with respect to where the red lines and the flashing yellows are. Temptation increases rapidly with ambiguity. Have a mechanism for resolving gray area issues
– Take a life. Every so often, these messages must be reinforced by publicly disciplining or terminating a transgressor. As the French would say, this is done "pour encourager les autres."
– Don’t deceive yourself into believing that, for whatever reason, your organization is immune. We know enough to understand that as long as the organization is inhabited by human beings, this belief is false and will probably get you into trouble. Being on the moral high road is never a given. It is an earned status.
One can virtually guarantee that implementation of these temptation-prevention measures will result in a dramatic reduction in the ethical and moral breakdowns that compromise and corrupt organizations.
Next week: The Four Horsemen and the Virgin Islands.

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