Doing the Right Thing May Be Easier Than You Think

We all know the hard stories of corporate whistleblowers. Sharon Watkins at Enron, Cynthia Cooper at Worldcom, for example. We view such people—quite rightly—as having not just the courage of their convictions, but courage enough to put their social and economic lives at risk for the sake of what they see as right. We all live in a better world because of the risks taken by such people.

Most of us think that such whistleblowers are rare, and perhaps they are. But we also think the cards are stacked against them—that the reason they are so rare is the likelihood of retaliation against someone going up against ‘the system.’

What if that’s not true? What if the risk of doing the right thing is in fact vastly overstated? That virtue is in fact appreciated more than we think? If that’s true, then what excuse do we all have for not doing the right thing more often?

Examples of Ethical Behavior that Evoke Admiration

Twice in the past two weeks I have heard stories that make me think we underestimate the power of good behavior. Briefly:

Story One. I was brought in to manage a main stream of a major contract we had with the government. To my horror, I quickly realized it was over budget, behind schedule, and we were not in a position to attest otherwise. Yet we had a major meeting upcoming at which I would be asked to do just that.

My boss and my boss’s boss had a lot riding on this. The government client had a lot riding on this. It was clear everyone wanted me to sign off and just deal with it, somehow, later. As I entered the headquarters building that day, I had this horrible feeling I was about to lose my job.

The moment came, and I was asked to publicly attest to our progress against milestones. “I simply cannot do that,” I said. “We are not in compliance on a number of those items, and I can’t claim otherwise.” I went home that night prepared to clear out my desk the next day.

But when I went to work the following day, it was as if little had happened. “Good job,” said one superior, “we had no business signing off.” The client appeared relieved too. I later was promoted; we also got more client work. In both cases, this moment was cited as a positive example of my performance.

Story Two. I was a manager of a large client project, which involved a presentation to the client’s Board of Directors. The CEO suggested that if our work turned out a certain way, we would receive a lot of business. I said I could not in good conscience bend the work the way he wanted it.

The next day, in front of the Board, the CEO put me on the spot, saying I was prepared to comment on my findings in a way that would have favored his request. I gulped. I didn’t confront him head on; but I did say that the data and analysis that we had performed unfortunately did not, in fact, support the CEO’s hoped-for outcome, but rather another.

I thought I would be in serious trouble with my boss. Instead, he told me that’s why they hired me in the first place, to stand up to tough situations. A few weeks later, a board member—a director in half a dozen other, larger companies—came to me with invitations to present at those companies. He said he did so because he could read between the lines and knew what I had done.

We Underestimate the Attraction of Ethical Behavior

I have no idea how common these stories are. They could be the exception rather than the rule (though I rather think there are more than we hear about).

The real point, however, is how easily the two organizations fell in behind these two people to support them in doing the right thing. As it turned out, their fears were unfounded. 

This I suspect is true: that we overstate the threat posed by ‘them.’ We overestimate the likelihood that no one would stand behind us, and that there is no support in our organizations for doing the right thing.

I suspect this too is true: that we understate the ability of people to appreciate the obviousness of the right thing. We under-state their hunger and willingness to follow someone who does the right thing, that there is in fact a reservoir of great good will and support.

Believing this doesn’t take anything away from the true courage it takes to be a whistleblower. On the contrary, it may suggest that the truly unethical and anti-social organizations are fewer than we think.

The bigger problem may lie not in unethical leaders, but in managers and future leaders who are too afraid to try on ethical leadership for size.

Where’s your whistle? What are you waiting for?

Whistle Blowers Redux

Many of you remember Sherron Watkins, who shall forever be known as the Whistle Blower of Enron. She was named Person of the Week by Time Magazine back in early 2002. 

But Sherron was no fly-by-night. I saw her speak, and she’s smart, thoughtful, and clearly of strong character. A not-uncommon set of characteristics for whistle-blowers, as it turns out. Read her empathetic comments about another whistle blower, Harry Markopolos, of Madoff fame.

But there’s another whistle blower in town, and he deserves a look-see as well. In this case, his name is Ilya Eric Kolchinsky, and the company he’s blowing the whistle on is his former employer, Moody’s Investors Service

When Kolchinsky used to work for Moody’s, he criticized some of their practices. Moody’s resisted to some extent, and to some extent changed practices based on his criticism. Or so it seems. You can read the NYTimes article Kolchinsky and Moody’s.

What’s unusual here is that Kolchinsky is filing suit against Moody’s not to ‘out’ Moody’s original actions, but to say that Moody’s effectively blacklisted him after the fact. You can look up his LinkedIn page and see that he had quite a good track record before his stint at Moody’s, but has been doing consulting work well off Wall Street since then.

You can read the text of Kolchinksy’s lawsuit yourself. Make up your own mind; don’t take my opinion of its validity, judge for yourself.  

Here’s why you should care.

The Perils of Whistle Blowing

In my humble and non-legal opinion, he’s got a case. And if he does, here’s what follows:

First, it sucks to be a whistle-blower. And if you don’t believe Kolchinsky, go back and read Watkins and Markopolis. The Enrons, Madoffs and Moodys of the world don’t take kindly to criticism.

Second, if they do this to whistle blowers who tell the truth (proven in Watkins’ and Markopolis’ cases, yet to be proven in Kolchinksy’s), then how can you trust what they have to say? Can you say “opaque”?

Third, if it’s true at Moody’s that you get punished for telling the truth, then what does that tell you about the internal culture at Moody’s right now? How likely is it that others are going to be telling the truth—particularly about whatever it is they’re telling you is the truth? And how fixed are things that need fixing?

Kolchinsky and Moody’s will get their day in court, and of course it’s premature to speculate. But I will say this. The sounds of whistles being blown often, albeit not always, signify fire. And if you get to the point where a multi-year Managing Director is suing you—well, I wouldn’t lay big money that he’s cuckoo.

It’s more likely that Wall Street is very effective at chilling dissent. Here’s what the Times article went on to say:

Experts on whistle-blower suits expressed surprise that more such suits had not been filed.

“We didn’t see people coming from Wall Street, from the brokerages — it was stunning,” said David K. Colapinto, the legal director for the National Whistleblowers Center, a nonprofit organization in Washington that tracks whistle-blower cases. “What it signals is there just are not incentives for people to come forward, and there may have been big disincentives.”

 My guess is it took nerves and a lot of provocation for Mr. Kolchinsky to take the steps he did.

Career Limiting Moves: Are You Kidding?

Perhaps the most toxic thing you can hear in the arena of people management is “That’s not my job.” It should be grounds for firing. But at least it’s a declarative, first-person statement.

Unlike another leading candidate for management poison: “That’s a career-limiting move.” A passive-aggressive statement if there ever was one.

Let me be clear about my point of view on this: if you work in a company where “that’s a career-limiting move” is part of the vocabulary, you work in a career-limiting company. And if your company has acronymized it to CLM, then you probably have those stupid round-figured laughing cartoon characters saying “You want it when?” in the coffee room too. Bad signs all.

What “Career-Limiting Move” Really Means

In my experience, the term doesn’t get applied to dumb stunts like mooning the chairman or emailing your bookie on the company’s email server. It gets used when you’re talking about doing something very right, that feels personally risky. Things like speaking the truth about an abusive partner; or about taking advantage of a customer; or about skating on thin legal/ethical ice. 

Usually there’s just enough truth in “career-limiting moves” to make it a scary proposition. After all, whistle-blowers often do get fired. But that’s not usually the case. Usually, “career-limiting move” just means speaking the truth where most people prefer to let things be unspoken. And more often than not, truth-tellers are appreciated, not punished.

Why People Don’t Speak the Truth

Human beings demonstrably mis-assess risk all the time. We are more afraid than we should be of doing the wrong thing; and we are less afraid than we should be of failing to the right thing. We constantly avoid the clear and present discomfort of speaking some truth, in favor of the faint hope that maybe someone else will speak up, someday. Meanwhile, things get toxic because of our failure to speak up.

Why ‘Career-Limiting Move’ is a Disastrous Concept

Every time someone invokes “that’s a career-limiting move” to justify a failure to act, their company sinks a little deeper into the muck. It means an organizational shortcoming has been fed, not stopped. That shortcoming will metastasize, since the more you refuse to speak the truth, the harder it is to do so the next time.

It means someone has put their own perceived self-interest ahead of the organization, and selfishness is the death of collective behavior. It means a failure to lead. When “leaders” invoke “career-limiting move” to justify their failure to act, it makes hypocrites of their claim to be leaders. 

It means a stake in the heart for collaboration, transparency, and innovation, because it punishes the risk-taking that is the fuel of those virtues. 

I can hear some of you saying, “But Charlie, you don’t appreciate the real-world situation; people have families, they have to earn a paycheck, they can’t afford the high principles you like to talk about. Get real.”

Fair enough. But we all have to live with our consciences, too. And we each have to draw that line by ourselves, for ourselves.

Where’s your line? When would you invoke the CLM clause rather than speak the truth? And are you sure about that?