Cheaters Never Win: The Importance of Professional Ethics — January 2020

Last week, we all learned the extent of cheating by the Houston Astros on their way to the 2017 World Series title.  If you haven’t heard, the team apparently used a video camera in center field to steal opposing teams’ signs and then would relay the information to a staff member in the locker room tunnel, who would indicate the next upcoming pitch by banging a certain number of times on a trash can so the batter could hear.  That much we know.  But furthermore, it is alleged that certain star players were wired so they could hear the next pitch directly from the cameraman in center field.  For those who don’t know much about baseball, knowing what pitch is coming gives the batter a distinct advantage…

After a league investigation that combed through 70,000 emails and at least 70 interviews, the Astros were indeed found guilty of cheating in the 2017 and 2018 seasons.  Major League Baseball fined the team $5 million and stripped them of their first and second round draft picks for two years.  They also suspended Houston’s general manager and on-field manager, both of whom were then immediately fired by the team.  Two other managers (Beltran of the Mets and Cora of the Red Sox) also lost their jobs, as they were with the Astros during the scandal.  The carnage resulting from this scandal is still unfolding.  And, unfortunately, it’s not an isolated incident.

About six weeks ago, the New England Patriots were caught filming practices of the Cincinnati Bengals, breaking NFL rules.  They have denied any wrongdoing as the NFL has started its investigation, claiming the video was for marketing and promotional purposes only.  But the videographer himself, when caught recording the wrong sideline, was quoted in saying: “Can we just delete the segment of footage and forget this ever happened” or something to that effect.  Doesn’t sound innocent to me.  And, given the Patriots’ tarnished brand – they were caught doing something similar in 2007 (now cleverly labeled as “Spygate”) and were significantly punished by the NFL, and they were caught in the 2014 AFC Championship Game underinflating footballs (“Deflategate”) for better gripping – it’s no wonder everyone suspects they’re guilty of mischief again.  Their reputation is pretty much tainted, at least as long as current ownership and leadership are in place.

Cheating in sports isn’t new – think of performance enhancing drugs, NCAA recruiting violations, point shaving, fraudulent officiating (NBA’s Donaghy was caught fixing games for gambling), Vaseline or emery boards on baseballs, pine tar and bat-corking, even Tonya Harding taking out Kerrigan’s knees in the 1994 US Figure Skating Championships.  Cheating has been around as long as sports themselves. 

And the fact is: the higher the stakes, the more incentive there is to cheat.  Big trophies, big money, big stages bring out big-time rule breakers.

Same in politics.  Look at today’s news involving election tampering, campaign finance violations, and possible illegal behind-the-scenes quid-pro-quo deals for personal gain.  Not really that new – it goes back generations (probably centuries).

Same in business – price fixing, collusion, bribery, among other forms of cheating.

And same in many people’s personal lives: according to a survey reported in Forbes a few years ago, 56% of MBA students claim to have cheated on tests, 1.6 million Americans admit cheating on taxes, and a startling 41% of married people admit to cheating on their marriage.  My goodness.

But as the saying goes: cheaters never win.  Reported in that same Forbes article, a University of California study shows that dishonest behavior can take a toll on your happiness and well-being.  “Happiness,” as the article states, “depends on your willingness to live an authentic life, where your behavior lines up with your values.”  Powerful statement.  So if you’re a generally honest person, you’ll be happiest when your behavior is consistent with your beliefs – and when your actions are honest, ethical, and morally grounded.  You may cheat to enjoy short-term gains, but the longer-term impact on your conscience (not to mention your reputation and your trustworthiness) may take a significant hit.

Ethical organizational cultures do more than just help people feel good about themselves: it’s smart business.  In a recent article in Small Business Digest, Nicole Zwieg Daly, director of the Center for Ethics in Practice at the University of St. Thomas (and a partner of PEN) claims: “companies with ethical cultures often find it easier to attract and retain loyal employees, customers, and partners” and that ethical organizations stand to gain a significant marketplace advantage, which for for-profit businesses, leads to profitability (and for all organizations leads to better outcomes and a stronger brand reputation).

According to Zwieg in a July 2019 Star Tribune article, there are three key pillars to building and maintaining an ethical business culture: principled leadership, equitable systems, and ethical citizenship.  And establishing and living those standards must start at the top.  Zwieg in the Star Tribune article:

Principled leaders articulate their values, make decisions guided by their values and consistently model their values. Principled leaders can be identified at any level of an organization. Individuals in positions of authority within an organization should most certainly be virtuous persons with principles that drive their action. Because humans have a psychological need to identify with a role model, it is incumbent upon all business leaders to practice behavior worth emulating — integrity, honesty, fairness and trustworthiness.

Equitable systems are necessary for an organization to truly develop and maintain an ethical culture.  Yes, establishing and publishing an ethical code of conduct is an excellent way to build an ethical foundation and codify an organization’s values; however, this is not enough to drive human behavior. Consider this: The Ethics and Compliance Initiative’s 2018 Global Business Ethics Survey found that employees were feeling more pressure than ever to cut corners in their workplace.  An equitable rewards and punishment system across an organization will help ensure more ethical behavior far beyond a codified document.

Finally, organizations should develop ethical citizens through ongoing learning. Ethical citizens look beyond self-interest to the needs of the greater good. They could be an organization’s most valuable asset because they will promote ethical practices and preserve ethical standards.  Developing ethical citizens requires employees to seek understanding and assistance on a variety of ethics and compliance issues freely and openly. Ethics presentations are not enough. Humans internalize information more when given the opportunity to choose how and what they would like to learn. Let all employees learn more about ethics and compliance, not just those with the words in their titles.

Being ethical doesn’t have to be hard.  I recall a time while I was working at a “Big 4” accounting/consulting firm, when the partner in charge of a six-digit consulting engagement didn’t like the research data we collected for a particular client, and asked me – the young, 23-year-old inexperienced consultant – to change the numbers.  Yes, he actually asked me to do that.  I refused, on principle – something that could have gotten me fired, but in the end probably earned his respect.  We presented the actual numbers (but carefully positioned the implications in a way that still made his desired point).  I simply was not going to lie about the data.

And last week, a good friend of mine in his haste to get to the Chiefs AFC Championship game went through the self-checkout line at a Wal-Mart and forgot to pay!  He got distracted talking to someone and obviously was focused on the upcoming game, so just walked out.  But he then did the right thing: he called them back, explained his accidental theft, and offered to come back and pay.  The store manager, I’m sure somewhat surprised, thanked him for his honesty.  A principled, ethical decision to just “do the right thing.”

Maintaining a high standard of ethical behavior is critical to maintaining a high level of integrity; maintaining a high level of integrity is critical to maintaining a high level of trust; and maintaining a high level of trust is critical to maintaining a strong brand (individual or organizational) and strong relationships.  That principle applies in sports, in politics, in business, and in life.

Today, perhaps more than ever – in an environment that seems to encourage and maybe even reward dishonesty, lying, and cheating – ethical behavior is critical.  Dishonesty may get you ahead in the short-term, but cheaters never win.

If you want to learn more about how to build and sustain an ethical organizational culture, attend (in person or by livestream) PEN’s Minneapolis breakfast forum Thursday, February 6 at MCTC.  Nicole Zwieg Daly will share her insights on what leaders and professionals can do to better ensure ethical behavior in all organizational interactions. Attendance is free for members, $30 for non-members.  Information is here.

What other insights/tips do you have regarding ethical behavior?  Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment.  And follow me on Twitter @LassiterBrian!

Never stop improving!

Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network

Catalyst for Success Since 1987!

Photo credit Steemit, Brian Spurlock/Reuters