After 25 years in business, I thought I’d seen it all - bullsh*t jobs, emotional abuse, secrets, lies, and outright theft or fraud. But there's something about this story of fraud that stopped me short ...
"Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.” - Luke 16:10
One thing I’m thankful my parents taught me was that lying and cheating to get ahead was, well, wrong.
I’ve spent 25 years running my own businesses, and I’ve been knee deep in other people’s businesses as a consultant, and I’ve seen it all - bullsh*t jobs, emotional abuse, secrets, lies, and outright theft or fraud.
The damage done by unethical business practices, by ‘looking the other way’ or trying to cheat or lie your way around the system is astronomical. Entire businesses can collapse. Millions of dollars can be lost. People can die.
But even if a business doesn’t collapse, if no one dies, if the fraud/lie is caught in time to prevent too much financial loss, it doesn’t mean that there wasn’t significant damage done.
Because sometimes the damage caused by the loss of trust and the betrayal is hidden, psychological and long lasting.
News broke Tuesday that 50 people were criminally charged in the largest college admissions scam that’s ever been prosecuted. The whole racket stinks and had all the elements of a sophisticated scam - from a fake charity, to fake test takers, fake transcripts, fake athletic accomplishment and even fake photos. Charges ranged from money laundering, obstruction of justice, racketeering and conspiracy to defraud the United State.
And while many articles rightfully point out the injustice done to less wealthy, but harder working students with better grades and test scores, and the harm done to the reputation of the universities who also were victimized by the scam, there was one particular aspect of the case that stopped me cold.
It was this line I read in the LA Times article:
“some of the children had knowledge of the scheme, while others were kept completely in the dark and believed they had earned admission on their own merits, prosecutors said.”
That’s what stopped me cold. The college age son/daughter who was kept completely in the dark as their parent did this.
Can you imagine doing that to your own child? Lying, cheating for them? Such a huge, huge betrayal and lie.
Put yourself in the shoes of that student. The minute they find out, they know, deep down, that their parents had no faith in them and their abilities to make their own way in the world.
That the image of who their parents want them to be is more important than who they are.
Can you imagine having to look the other students at the school in the eye knowing that they also know you are there under false pretenses? That you never earned your spot like everyone else? That your seat in the classroom was essentially stolen from a more deserving student?
It makes your life into one big lie. And if you ever did trust your parents, that trust is broken - probably irreparably.
Children, teenagers, young people, all of us have to be comfortable with ‘failing’, with mistakes, with things not working out, with taking a hit to our egos once and awhile.
That instinct to protect the ego, to cheat “just a little” or to “cover your a$s” and not tell the full story is never going to work in the long run.
Oddly enough, as disgusted as I am with the parents who would betray their children and community to that level, I understand the instinct to protect your kids, to give them that little extra push forward, to use your influence or power to get them ahead in life. We all have egos, we all want to look good (including me).
It is hard to tell the truth, to admit when we or our team aren’t measuring up in some way. To treat everyone fairly and ethically, despite how we may feel about them - (especially in family based businesses, where emotions, family roles and business roles tend to all mesh together).
That’s why having a solid ethical foundation at the heart of a business is so important. It’s why we start every business arrangement or consulting contract with a discussion of our Code of Honour. Ethics, honour, truth telling, has to be infused within your whole organization. Creating a business system and a leadership system that has a code of honour as a foundation is like getting a vaccination - it boosts our immunity to having unethical stuff creep into the system.
And we need that inoculation, because it is so easy to let our emotions and our egos get in the way. It is really easy to cover for people we like (and expose those we don’t). To overlook the ‘small stuff’, the ‘white lies’ the ‘little cheats’.
But like the betrayed child of those wealthy school admission cheats, covering up for someone, lying to them about what you really think of their job performance, trying to make someone or something look better than it is, is damaging.
It’s like a slow poison creeping through the system. Ingest poison, and if it doesn’t kill you right away, it will make everything else taste bad and cause serious problems to pop up even in unexpected places. Everything has a consequence, and systems and people in a business are often dynamically interconnected in ways you weren’t aware of.
Mental health issues are on the rise among young people. One psychological phenomenon that causes a lot of damage is called “The Imposter Syndrome”, the idea that deep down inside, despite your achievements or what the outside world sees, you are an imposter, a fraud, not valued. It can lead to burnout (“if I work really hard, no one will notice how incompetent I really am’), anxiety (‘people will find out about me’) or depression (“I’m not worthy of anything”).
Imposter Syndrome goes hand-in-hand with low self confidence and fear of failure. It is the other side of the teeter totter when it comes to ‘protecting’ or ‘covering for’ an employee who isn’t performing well. You get to temporarily feel better and avoid a difficult, uncomfortable conversation, but down the road, that employee will start to feel like an imposter, and suffer psychologically. Things will start to slip. Damage is done, and trust is lost.
At Hume Chalk, we look at workplace stress as a symptom of a system out-of-balance. A Code of Honour integrated into your business systems in a thoughtful, deliberate way rebalances things toward the good.
As a true leader, you have to be that ‘parent’ that refuses to lie, cover up or ‘pretend’ when it comes to your staff and your business. People have to be allowed to fail. Balls have to drop. Hard truths must be told.
Because secrets, lies and ‘cheating’ in a business is a slow poison.
And it’s just, well, wrong.
Do you know something is wrong in your business but are struggling to figure out what? Are you involved in succession planning or wanting to retire/exit/sell your business? Want to learn about adapting an honour code in your own business? Contact us and let's talk about it.
Diane Currie Sam has worked for over 25 years across multiple industries to help her clients to initiate massive growth in their businesses, secure millions of dollars in funding and sales contracts, and initiate change through the power of strategic storytelling. She is the founder/CEO of “Be a Better Story” business services, and contributing columnist for Inc. Magazine. She has a Bachelor's of Science degree from the University of BC and a Masters of Arts in psychology from Trinity Western University.
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