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Bias & Effect: Doing the Right Thing Isn’t Always Clear

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Bias & Effect: Doing the Right Thing Isn’t Always Clear

As we strive to maintain an ethical workplace and build a corporate culture of accountability and morality, there are phrases we constantly see and hear in our day-to-day business. Speak up. Do the right thing. Make a difference. By establishing policies and codes of conduct, by setting guidelines for compliance to regulations, and by implementing and communicating the reporting tools at everyone’s disposal, leaders seek to motivate and encourage their staff to get involved– simultaneously managing risk. Solid ethics & compliance programs have both a depth and a width, instilling confidence in the trustworthiness of the program to the employee population and illustrating the commitment to adherence to established policy and a “no-fear” approach to possible retaliation. This philosophy is a mainstay in to a successful GRC initiative.

This past Tuesday, Inc. Magazine ( ran a thought-provoking article concerning the Penn State scandal, subtitled “What Would Your Employees Have Done?” While we should always remember and respect the victims of such alleged criminal acts, the reach of the scandal has spread dramatically. The story looks at the actions – or inactions – of then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary when he claims to have witnessed a sex crime. The question is, did McQueary do the right thing, morally and ethically, did he take the appropriate action befitting the situation? Or could he even be seen as liable in the case?

Eric Schurenberg, the author of the Inc. piece, looks at the “shoulda-coulda-woulda’s” of that event. He relates McQueary’s actions to what social psychologists call the “bystander effect” (the belief that someone else will take care of the issue) and/or “normalcy bias” (basically, not believing one’s own eyes in the face of an awful event).

If we can take a lesson from these terrible, troubling events, it’s perhaps how each of us, as private individuals and employees of larger organizations, would question our own actions in such a situation. Hopefully, none of us will be put in that position, but parallels can be drawn to less dramatic or life-threatening occurrences in our daily routine. I can’t say it any better than Schurenberg: “There will be times when you need your employees to overcome their workplace version of bystander effect or normalcy bias and do the right thing, even when it’s uncomfortable or confrontational, or appears to jeopardize their job. The occasion won’t be something as horrific as the crimes alleged at Penn State, thankfully, but it doesn’t have to be that awful to have awful consequences. Think Enron, Lehman Brothers, MF Global—or for that matter, Netflix Quikster or Bank of America debit card fees. Whether the issue was unethical behavior or just a dumb business move, there were witnesses to all those missteps. But no one effectively intervened.”

That is powerful, deep and should be pause for some realistic and thoughtful introspection.

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