Lessons from Penn State


By Beth Mirza November 15, 2011

The Penn State University child sex abuse allegations have caused a popular and highly successful foo​tball coach to be fired, incited students to riot in the streets and brought to light possible years of suffering of the alleged victims. Reactions vary from admonitions to absolve head coach Joe Paterno of blame to calls to shutter the Penn State football program.

Many commenters, however, agree on one point: People knew something wrong was happening, and they could have done more than they did to stop it.

Companies can—and should—create processes and cultures where employees feel empowered and safe to report wrongdoing. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it also makes good business sense, experts say.

Values in Action

“When there’s a lack of moral competence and behavior consistent with moral principles, you end up with a corporation that’s not sustainable,” said Doug Lennick, CEO of The Lennick Aberman Group and co-author of Moral Intelligence 2.0 (Pearson Prentice Hall, 2011). While working at American Express, he co-championed and developed emotional competence training for the company, which has been recognized as a model program by the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations.

An organization’s stated values mean little if the leaders don’t put those values into action every day and demonstrate for employees the kind of behavior they desire. Enron’s stated values—communication, respect, integrity and excellence—were admirable, but they didn’t come into play when executives were making decisions to hide debt and defraud stockholders, Lennick said. Ultimately, the company went bankrupt and senior officials went to jail.

“I don’t know if fear or greed was driving their choices,” Lennick said, “but these were not values-based decisions.”

In his book, Lennick describes how four values—integrity, responsibility, compassion and forgiveness—drive good business outcomes by creating a culture where employees trust their leaders, where innovation is encouraged because failures are not ostracized, and where the best and brightest are attracted and retained.

Company leaders should reinforce the values they want their employees to have in everyday situations and meetings. They should talk specifically about how the values show up in certain decisions and behaviors. Employees are going to emulate how they see their leaders behaving.

“Moral principles mean nothing [without] the behavior. When you make that the way you do business, your decision-making improves,” Lennick said. “[But] if your people aren’t behaving, then look to your leaders.”

Witness to Wrongdoing

If an employee or leader is suspected of bad behavior—whether a heinous crime like child abuse or something less serious—employees should feel safe in reporting the bad acts to company leaders.

The mechanism of how that reporting takes place could make the difference in whether the allegation is investigated or swept under the rug. Safety experts advocate a system that allows employees to register complaints anonymously and lets leaders connect the dots among what might appear to be random incidents.

The following events took place at Penn State, according to the Associated Press:

  • In 1998, a mother complained to university police that then-defensive line coach Jerry Sandusky had molested her 11-year-old son. However, a district attorney determined there was not enough evidence to pursue a prosecution.
  • In 2000, janitors on two occasions reportedly witnessed Sandusky assaulting young boys. One made a complaint to his supervisor, who referred him to another university manager, but the janitor never followed up. At that time, Sandusky had retired from coaching but still had access to university locker rooms.
  • In 2002, an assistant coach who reportedly witnessed a child being assaulted by then-former coach Sandusky in a university locker room reported the incident to head coach Paterno. Paterno reported the incident to the university’s athletic director. Eventually, the university’s senior vice president for finance and business was notified as well. The charitable foundation headed by Sandusky was notified of the incident, and Sandusky’s locker room keys were taken away. But police were not notified.

Organizations need the ability to pull all of these bits of information together and see a larger picture, said Rick Shaw, founder of Awareity, which produces web-based platforms to help companies aggregate employee reports and prevent wrongdoing.

Shaw recommends that organizations create a committee to handle employee complaints. In each of the incidents listed above, the investigations were stopped by one person. A committee charged with examining allegations is more likely to overcome personal biases and tendencies to avoid conflict and instead proceed with an investigation.

In addition, organizations need to make it easy for employees to report wrongdoing, Shaw said, not only by having a policy in place to govern the process, but also by empowering employees through training and support. Train people on what to do, and make sure they are prepared to do it.

“Prevention is less expensive than the tragedy, cover-ups and scandals that come out later,” Shaw said. “There is no policy or hotline that prevents anything. People prevent things. Are your people equipped; is your organization equipped to handle this?”

Don’t Ignore Allegations

A lesson that all employers can learn from the Penn State scandal is that “no good ever comes from burying your head in the sand and hoping it all goes away,” said Ohio employment law attorney Jon Hyman. Companies that ignore allegations only exacerbate the problem.

“There’s a sliding scale: The more serious the offense, the less you should care about reputational harm [to the company],” Hyman said. “The more serious the offense, the more harm there will be if you don’t report it.”

Beth Mirza is senior editor for HR News. She can be reached at Beth.Mirza@shrm.org.

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