Wealth Shift: The Decline of Ethics in America
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#3 - You Dirty Rat

In the war against Wealth Shift, upper management tends to place the burden for dealing with unacceptable employee behavior on middle and lower management. At first blush this might seem like the proper place for the responsibility – after all, upper level managers have far more important things to do with their time than policing the halls and cubicles of the company searching for all the tardy, two-hour lunch taking, internet shopping, office supply stealing, Wealth Shifting employees they can find. There are two big problems with this strategy, however – the first is that nobody wants to be a rat and the second is that nobody is going to rat out someone else for behaviors they exhibit themselves.

Various companies have done studies that statistically prove that asking one employee to be another employee’s keeper simply does not work. For example, 30% of workers surveyed by Careerbuilder.com admitted to doing their holiday shopping online at work (the actual rate is probably even higher). In the same survey, 2% of managers said they had fired an employee for holiday shopping online during office hours. In another recent Careerbuilder.com survey, 74% of people interviewed said they have seen a co-worker do something which they personally felt was either unethical or illegal. The vast majority of these same respondents said they chose not to report the incident.

We need to accept that there is a real reluctance among mid-and lower-level managers to take strong disciplinary measures to correct the Wealth Shift behavior of their subordinates. Since the workplace has become such a big part of the average person’s social environment, this is actually tantamount to asking people to rat out their friends, which is something that is ingrained in every single person in this country -from kindergarten onward -not to do. If you want a truly hostile work environment, one of the surest ways to achieve it is to hold your employees accountable for tattling on each other.

There is a scene in the movie Scent of A Woman where Al Pacino’s character, a highly-decorated military colonel, defends his protégé for violating the prep school’s honor code by refusing to name the persons responsible for pulling a prank on a professor. In the impassioned speech that helped clinch him a Best Actor Oscar, Al Pacino says:

“Now, I don’t know who went to this place – William Howard Taft, William Jennings Bryan, William Tell – whoever. Their spirit is dead, if they ever had one. It’s gone. You’re building a rat ship here. A vessel for sea-going snitches. And if you think you’re preparing these minnows for manhood, you better think again. Because I say you are killing the very spirit this institution proclaims it instills….

Now, as I came in here, I heard those words – cradle of leadership. Well, when the bough breaks the cradle will fall. And it has fallen here. It has fallen! Makers of men, creators of leaders, be careful what kind of leaders you’re producing here. I don’t know if Charlie’s silence here today is right or wrong. I’m no judge or jury. But I can tell you this – he won’t sell anybody out to buy his future! And that, my friends, is called integrity. That’s called courage. Now that’s the stuff that leaders should be made of.”

I couldn’t agree more. After my first year at the public accounting firm of Arthur Young and Company (now Ernst and Young) in Dallas, in which I received some of the highest ratings possible, one of the partners called me into his office to congratulate me.

He then went on to speak highly of my connection with my peer group and asked if I would consider being his ear to the staff. In hindsight, I sincerely doubt that this man envisioned a scenario in which I would flatly refuse – but refuse I did. And not only that, but I went on to blithely explain to him that what was really wrong with the company was its lack of transparency all the way around. I cited as support for my theory an incident that I will refer to here as the “Great Coke Fiasco”.

About halfway through my first year, refrigerators containing soft drinks (which had previously been free to employees) were suddenly replaced with vending machines that dispensed a variety of soft drinks at a cost of 10 cents per can. Virtually simultaneously, office supplies that had previously been kept in an unlocked storage room were transferred to a requisition room manned by an attendant from 9 to 10 in the morning and 1 to 2 in the afternoon. Talk about inconvenient.

Since all this was done without any advance warning or explanation by the powers that be, rampant speculation quickly ensued amongst the staff as to the reason for the sudden, unexpected change. Was Arthur Young and Company having financial difficulties? Was the economy of the mid-1980s so terrible that the company could no longer afford even soft drinks and office supplies? Should we brush up our resumés and start looking elsewhere for employment?

The stated reason, which came out in an abrupt memo a few weeks later (after management found out how unproductive their panic-stricken, half-cocked, rumor mill mongering staff was being), was that employees were wasting valuable resources because soft drinks and office supplies were simply too available. Some partner had ostensibly gotten fed up with finding warm half-drunk Cokes strewn around the office, and had brilliantly concluded that, if they cost 10 cents a can, people would be more likely to finish them.

Like the naïve fool I was at that point in my career, I not only bought that lame explanation, I used it as my argument for why the company would profit from increased information-sharing and greater transparency between management and staff! Had management been more transparent about the reason they had decided to start charging staff for Cokes in the first place, I rationalized to my Partner, we could have avoided the whole Great Coke Fiasco altogether! If management would be more open with the staff, the staff would certainly be willing to be more open with management and nobody would have to rat on anybody. (Oh, yes, I was quite eloquent.) Otherwise, I concluded smugly, ratting out my friends and co-workers was simply not an option. I could never consider unilaterally betraying their trust and confidence for my own career advancement.

At the time, I couldn’t understand why such a brilliant offer-in-compromise was so summarily rejected. It had seemed perfectly logical to me. I now realize that the real reason my supervising partner’s face froze in a tight smile at my suggestion of greater transparency at all levels of the company was not because my idea was bad. It was because management had lied about the reason for adopting new policies where soft drinks and office supplies were concerned. My supervising partner didn’t dare admit to me, a lowly newly-promoted senior, that the real reason behind these policy changes in the early days of Wealth Shift was that management no longer trusted its staff. Nor was management willing to risk potential litigation by issuing a blanket unsubstantiated accusation of thievery by the firm’s C.P.A. employees, who, at that time, were universally regarded as some of the most ethical professionals in the world.

Cokes and office supplies were walking out the door on a daily basis, but, rather than instituting company-wide heart-to-heart training sessions in ethics (training sessions that I still feel might have cured the problem while at the same time creating a system of mentorship and accountability), the way management decided to handle the problem was to pile on more rules -to institute policies and procedures designed to police it rather than prevent these undesirable Wealth Shifting behaviors.

More than twenty years have passed since the “Great Coke Fiasco”. Although I am perfectly willing to confess that I do not know what Ernst and Young’s soft drink and office supply theft rates are today, I do know that 60% of the employees surveyed by Vault.com are willing to admit to stealing office supplies. I would venture to guess that the companies those employees work for have some sort of policing procedures in place, just like Ernst and Young probably still does. And yet the thefts go on, and on, and on.

All right. All together now. The definition of insanity is????

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