Sunday, April 30, 2017

Does Working for an Unethical Leader Make You Unethical?

Genuine ethical leaders seem to be in short supply these days, hence the constant stream of corporate scandals. Is this a recent development or have leaders always been susceptible to unethical behaviour? and, for example, is it social media that makes it easier to name and shame these days? I’d like to think that it’s the former.
I remember the first boss I worked for, his strong values and sense of fairness and care. He seemed to see his team as a family – a group of people that he wanted to develop and find those areas of untapped latent potential that would help them grow as people and in their business careers. He was one of the many inspirational leaders who have helped me over the length of my career – and helped build what I’d like to think is a strong moral compass and impenetrable, unwavering set of ethical business values.
Probably like many of us I’ve met the full range of leaders in my career – from the excellent and inspirational – to the power crazed narcissistic cheats. Fortunately I can say that I’ve learnt something positive from all of them; from the excellent is self-explanatory and from the ‘over-promoted’ bad lot, I learnt what not to do and how I wouldn’t want to lead people, when my turn came.
Yet, I’ve often wondered, however, if during those times when I have sadly worked for unethical leaders – whether that made me unethical by default? You know the type – those that ignore getting three quotes from different suppliers, for example, and who source products or services from a former colleague from a past company, at inflated prices.
During those times I remember being so far down the ‘food chain’ that I didn’t really know what to do and who I could go to – who I could trust to discuss my perceptions with – as often that’s all you have, perceptions, with little proof or facts; and you never really know who’s involved in the ‘scam’.
I remember a friend of mine who is ex-military intelligence and who now investigates company fraud, telling me that when he first meets the CEO or Chairman, he asks them to “write down the ten people who they trust the most in their organization” and after they’ve written the list he’ll tell them that the person defrauding the company will be one of those on the list; and 99% of the time he’s right.
Unethical leaders are usually quite clever, manipulative individuals with acute or borderline psychopathic tendencies, along with narcissism, etc. They surround themselves with a sub-structure of ‘vulnerable, weak’ leaders. People who maybe want to prove a point to a family member; an elder brother, for example, who’s had a more successful career.  Where for that chance of a promotion and that ‘status’ that goes with a leadership position, the incumbent is less likely to make a fuss over unethical practices, especially if the ‘promotion’ will make him look successful in the eyes of his or her family; or other important people in their lives.
By the time these manipulated people realise what they’ve done and realise the people they’ve betrayed in the process, it’s actually too late, as they are already in too deep – so they begrudgingly circle the wagons with the unethical leader and ‘fight’ it out to the end.
Different organizations approach unethical conduct in different ways – some deal with it quietly internally, sweeping as much as they can under the carpet for fear of what the ‘scandal’ may have on their share price, for example. Other organizations want to make an example and are completely transparent about what has happened and who was involved – cleaning house, so to speak. Also hoping in the process that this will encourage future employees to challenge unethical practices and to act as a deterrent too.
Of course in practice the most senior leader involved in the unethical ‘behaviour’, when caught or challenged, often tries to pin the blame on his junior leadership team; those he’s manipulated during the process, as he or she always sees them as disposable cannon fodder if and when the time comes – often being able to offload the blame for everything onto them. There are usually cleverly crafted email trails, signed invoices etc that incriminate the na├»ve over-promoted junior leaders – who suddenly see their dream future disintegrating before their eyes.
But what about everyone else – the staff members, what about them? Where should the jury’s verdict fall for the average employee? Most of the time they only hear rumours or innuendo, they often have no actual proof of any wrong doing by the leader, who is likely to be several layers above them. Some might have the courage to approach their direct boss – but often these conversations can be quite sharp or fruitless, with the leader explaining that everything is under control or that this is none of their business and above their pay grade.  
I’m a baby boomer and come from an era where I’d like to think good strong values were instilled in us at a young age, by parents who’d suffered during World War II. Obviously as we grow and develop we either continue to embrace these values or we don’t. Where I stand is that corporate values are not a bunch of words on a wall somewhere – but true corporate values are the behaviours and characteristics that we carry in our hearts each and every day we are at work, they are what define us as employees.
So my advice is that if you ever suspect unethical behaviour – find the right ‘channel’ in your organisation to meet and chat with. This is often an audit office, or committee, with a direct line to the company chairman, a group that is kept at a distance from the every-day workings of the business, so that they can be impartial and who often have powers to investigate anywhere in the organization. They should keep your conversation confidential and protect you from any potential retaliation later down the line.
Either way in the 21st Century we all need to stand up against unethical leaders in the work place.