The ones you can’t trust

Recently, we have seen a number of high profile ethical issues pop up in global companies, U.S. companies and if you look around a little – you will probably find one in the news in your city. Most recently, this would include the Volkswagen EPA mileage situation.

Stop it.

No, I don’t mean stop doing it. I mean stop putting up with them. Stop encouraging them. Stop tolerating them. Stop teaching your team and your managers to ignore them through your inaction, or less than substantial action.

What exactly do I mean?

It isn’t like this is a new phenomena, but it’s quite clear that it’s one that needs some attention from businesses – including yours.

Why do I point my crooked little finger at you? Because you, like other small local business owners, are the one who often give people their first job. You are probably also the one who first sees poor choices or ethical lapses – call them what you will – and then don’t send the right message in how you handle them.

Before we get to far into this, I want to be crystal clear that I am not saying that young / new employees are the problem. What they are is impressionable. How you and other employers handle ethical failures is the problem. The actions that young and new employees see set the stage for how these things should be handled.

How will you use these teachable moments? What is the normal result they need to see? What normally happens when you encounter something like this?

Perhaps the results look something like this list – and you may know of a few other reactions:

  • It’s ignored as if it didn’t happen. Think about the message that sends to other staff members.
  • It’s recognized as a problem, but nothing substantial happens.
  • It’s recognized as a problem and someone’s pay is docked.
  • It’s recognized as a problem and someone gets fired.

Most of these responses don’t send the right message. They certainly don’t set the tone for new impressionable employees and current / future managers. Instead, they make it clear that these kinds of things are usually ignored, so they must be OK.

Do you think former Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn was ever fired for unethical behavior? Do you think he ever fired anyone for unethical behavior?

People don’t make decisions like the ones that happened at Volkswagen without a history of behavior encouraging them.

What message does it send that Winterkorn gets to keep his $32 million pension? Who else at VW keeps their job, benefits, pension and perks, despite the fraudulent actions they took?

Where were the roots of this behavior planted? These people didn’t magically change from ethical to unethical when EPA testing started. The people central to this situation likely have a history of increasingly unethical behavior. They didn’t wake up one day and decide to do this on their own. To involve engineering and manufacturing at this scope, management approval has to be involved.

Where was it learned that this behavior is acceptable?

Preventative measures

You might be in a situation where you’re concerned about how to get rid of a problem employee – and yes, a problem is any employee you can’t trust. What you don’t want to create is a legal problem that’s worse than an untrustworthy employee. Fix that by working with an employment law expert. Yes, an attorney.

Do whatever your attorney says. Every time, every dotted I, every crossed T.

When you have a bulletproof employment agreement that empowers you to deal with an unethical employee without concern for repercussions, then you’re ready.

Almost.

If you make changes, you must communicate them both to existing staff and new employees. Leave no doubt that there is no defense for the dark arts and that any action that threatens the ability to trust any employee will result in their immediate termination.

No warnings. No meaningful chats with the big boss. No waiting until the end of the day or shift. No mercy.

Show them the door immediately – and so I reinforce this: be sure your termination process has been vetted.

It can be stopped, but it will take action from all of us.

What message do your actions send? Take the wrong action, or ignore them, and your people will remember it for years to come.