Ethics: Maintain Bright Lines – Interview with Dr. Marianne Jennings

Dr. Marianne Jennings

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For 40 years, Marianne Jennings has been teaching students and companies about ethical behavior in business settings. Professor emeritus of legal and ethical studies at the W. P. Carey School of Business, Jennings is the author of The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse – an audit tool and primer for creating and sustaining an ethical culture. She was a featured speaker on October 27, 2017, at the Compete Through Service symposium, hosted by the Center for Services Leadership at Arizona State University.

Center for Services Leadership (CSL) We were sitting together this morning at the Compete through Service Symposium. You had a business audience, and you were talking about what in the past you used to call “the slippery slope,” and how people get into ethical trouble, and all of those companies – three slides of companies …

Marianne Jennings … three and a half!

CSL Three and a half slides! Hundreds! Hundreds of companies that have slipped and fallen. On the day that we are talking, the big story in the news cycle is sexual harassment. And I was wondering, maybe that would be a good place to start to talk about what the perils are out there, and how do people get into trouble.

Jennings It’s all the same. The issue changes; the conduct that they are engaged in that’s wrong changes. But the psychology is still the same. What you have is somebody that is generally powerful in the organization, and it can be the entire leadership team saying this is what we do, whether it’s in sales or whatever. In this case, you have not only the leader of a company, but in the Weinstein case obviously a very powerful person in Hollywood in general. And all the others that have come out as a result – Mark Halperin, analyst, respected; Bill O’Reilly, Fox News, analyst, respected. It just keeps going, because what you have here is a break in the bystander effect.

This [concept] comes from the Kitty Genovese story, the young woman who was assaulted, and people could see it from their windows in New York City but took no action. And the reason that they took no action is because they assumed somebody else would do something about it. There was fear that they would harmed as a result of it. And [in these instances] the knowledge base grows wider and wider, as more people know about it, but no one quite has the courage to get it to someone who can and will do something about it.

You get a feel for the helplessness that can occur, not only in the sexual harassment kind of thing, but in any issue, where the CEO knows, and, what am I supposed to do? Where am I supposed to go? This is the top of the heap.

CSL To get down to the nitty gritty, for individuals and companies, how does a company build a culture where the bystander effect does not come into play?

Jennings You have to have some outside supervision, and I blame boards in these situations almost as much as I blame the individuals involved. For example, if you look at the Weinstein situation, it turns out that most of this occurred in a room at the Peninsula Hotel in Los Angeles. If his home is located there, and his offices are located there, why would they be paying for a hotel room for Harvey every single night?

So, there’s one of the secrets to getting this under control, which is you don’t allow the leadership of the company to go about unchecked. And one of the best ways, as simple as it is, is to make sure that everything that they do is audited. In some companies I’ve seen the CEO is audited every single month, so they know exactly what’s being spent and where it’s being spent, and that is a profound clue. The board should be tracking things. Boards should ask, how were we able to get these numbers? How come the numbers are always consistent? That’s the role of the board. You really need a solid board, a board that knows how to ask questions. And the irony is they’re not the big strategic questions. They are following the really boring, mundane stuff in the company. That’s where the clues are.

CSL Look for the anomalies.

Jennings … The anomalies, the weird expenses, those kinds of things. And you also have to have someone next to you, when you’re the CEO or the chairman of the board, someone who can rein you in. It can be someone you trust – that’s fine – but someone who can say, “I don’t know if that’s a good idea.” And I guess the question is, do you have people who will call you out?

I didn’t get to talk about this in the session, but Paul McCartney described the phases of his career, and he said when they were young Beatles, when they went into a studio they had various producers that said, “you need to go back and do this, change this,” and, he said, “we got better as a result.” But there came a time when we were not doing the best, but people would say, “Fabulous!” And [the group] would say “Well, maybe we ought to change …” and the producers would say “Even better!” And he said [this happened] even to a large extent when he was with Wings. Because he had the respect of his earlier career nobody challenged him. But he said to them, “I want to know – tell me what’s right, tell me what’s wrong.” That’s a leader.

A person can be your checks and balances. A board can be checks and balances. Reading your mail; reading what people write on the ethics line – that can be your checks and balances. Go to a website where employees anonymously write about your company and see what’s being said. Those are good tools. The small details. That’s where the clues are.

CSL Toward the end of your presentation you talked about the credo – establishing the white line (that should not be a chalk line) – the bright white line. So that’s something that every individual should be thinking about for themselves, especially in the context of being an employee and doing a job. Can you talk about that for a minute?

Jennings The credo can be done organizationally or by department, but individually, I tell my students, before you go out there, what are you willing to do and not willing to do?

CSL So it’s important for people to be thinking about these issues, before they are confronted.

Jennings Yes, because then you feel the pressure, and if you are in an organization or an industry where everybody else is doing it, you look around and say, what’s the big deal? You sort of minimize it.

But [when you develop a credo] you are establishing your values – this is the line I don’t cross, and one of the examples in service is very often just the simple signature. “It closes tomorrow. They require it now. They need it now.” And so, we sign for somebody else. We access their computer. We do all kinds of things. But that’s dangerous stuff.

And the thing is, once you cross the line they know they can go to you in the future and say, ok, here’s something else. And it’s never going to be as benign as that first one was. So, you become prisoners of each other. An auditor who says I’ll let it go this time is toast from that minute on. If it doesn’t comply with the principles, then you say so and you get it fixed. Because otherwise you smudge the line, and they know it.

CSL What else should we be talking about that has a direct relation to service?  

Jennings In the name of service, people do some pretty wild things.

I’ve seen it in security clearance kinds of situations, where you have to have certain things done, but someone says “yes, but this is so-and-so.” On the other hand, I’ve also seen really good leaders say, “I don’t care who I am, they need to follow what their job requires them to do.”

I was a speaker once at a company training session – high security – and I had not brought along my driver’s license. I knew they had screening so I didn’t brought anything but a folder. And this poor security guard said, “I need to have some ID.” The person who had asked me to come and speak was just flying off the handle, saying “I can’t believe this is happening.” But I said no, I’m not going to be a part of this – he’s right. I said there’s a solution. The hotel is just over there – let’s just go and get my ID and get it straightened around. The leader of the company wanted to break the rules, but [the security guard] stood his ground, and I said he was right.

CSL That was an excellent experience for [the security guard], to stand his ground, and to have you support him too.

Jennings Yes – and I said you might want to think about rewarding him. We [cross lines] in the name of accommodating. We do it because it’s such a little thing. But the thing is once you’ve crossed the line, in the future you waive it more and more.

CSL Especially if a leader enables a subordinate to cross a line – then it makes all of the lines up for grabs, doesn’t it?

Jennings It sends the message that it doesn’t matter. And then when people are rewarded despite the fact that they have crossed lines, it’s one of the sure-fire signals.

When I’m doing cultural studies I often ask employees, have you ever seen anyone get rewarded despite the fact [that they crossed lines] and they almost all have an example where they said this person has been promoted and this is what he did. What kind of a signal does that send? It says it’s not a definitive line.

CSL So it’s the little things that will accumulate and will either become your shield against unethical behavior, or your downfall?

Jennings Yes. Another good example: this was in the nuclear industry and there was a manager who was known as Mr. Safety. If you stepped over the lines on the walkway he would call you out.

In the nuclear industry they tend to live in the same communities nearby, because they are isolated. This particular manager was out one Saturday, and he was fixing something on his roof. He had backed his pick-up truck to the side of the house, and he put a step ladder into the back of the truck and he was on top of the step ladder. Two employees happened to go by, and cell phone technology being what it is, they snapped a picture, blew it up to 8X10, posted it in the plant, and put “Mr. Safety” at the bottom, showing him on this contraption that was so completely unsafe.

And you know what? He made them leave it up, because he said “They were right and I was wrong.” What he was saying was that they watch you no matter where you are. You’re an example. You can be Mr. Safety all you want, but you better live by it. It’s an illustration: “Even I have to be careful.”

CSL That reminds me of one of your other points: be accessible as a leader, so that your employees understand that they can come to you. They know who you are.

Jennings James Cash Penney. He was known for being out and about. Walmart – Sam – he used to walk around, and he’d leave notes. And he would say, “You know I noticed that K-Mart had cheaper prices on tackle. You might want to look into that.” They knew that he knew the stores. They knew that he had been there. You really have to spot what’s going on.

I look at all of the ethical lapses these days and I think, this is highly fixable. It’s just that people are not even looking at the simplest of fixes. They’re not. People don’t do unethical things: there are pressures, there are signals, there’s a culture, and unless you’ve got that under control, all the rest is irrelevant.

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