Ill Gotten Gains
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The after dinner discussion turned to apartment rentals and finding the most suitable furniture for college students. Moving from a dorm room into a non-furnished apartment requires considerable furniture finding plus a search for pots, pans and “silverware.” Dave and Linda Rice’s only son, Josh, a materials engineering major at Virginia Tech, is moving to an apartment for the 2011–2012 academic year after two years of dorm life. Dave, Linda, my wife Fran, Josh, a friend of Josh’s and I were focused on minimizing the cost of the transition when Josh’s friend suggested that Josh had already paid for silverware from Tech’s dining halls. The meal plan includes a fee for lost and broken items and many students consider the payment of that fee an entitlement to several settings of silverware and, if necessary, a few plates and cups. Linda was horrified with the suggestion and immediately instructed Josh that he was not entitled to anything except meals and that removal of any housewares would be ill gotten gains. She further stated that such gains were stealing in God’s eyes and were subject to punishment in the Rice household, if not under the law. Fran was equally horrified especially because the University basically expected the students to steal and therefore charged, in advance, for the privilege. We all questioned a system that anticipated dishonesty and established a pathway for students to obtain “ill gotten gains.”
Fran and I had only recently participated in the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s Annual Ethics Forum where we heard a multitude of excellent speakers. Fran heard more talks than I because I spoke several times during the day. One talk that shocked Fran was a discussion by Ms. Alice Eldridge, Vice President, Ethics & Business Conduct, Lockheed Martin Corporation. Ms. Eldridge manages the corporation’s ethics program and is involved in awareness and compliance training, outreach activities, issues management and performance tracking and was speaking primarily to small groups of Academy Cadets. She shared a corporate experience that involved several promising young employees who had been selected for fast track promotions. The fast track included academic training that required the satisfactory completion of five “college level” courses. Approximately half of these employees were subsequently fired because they cheated their way to “satisfactory” course completion. Exit interviews of those fired revealed that the individuals believed that “everyone cheats on academic courses” and that none of the selected employees would ever cheat on corporate endeavors. Their ethical fiber had become distorted and compartmentalized. Since hearing this I’ve talked to several students and professors and found that cheating is more than common on our university campuses. Ill gotten gains go beyond housewares and include homework, papers, tests and diplomas. Unfortunately, such behavior is not restricted to the college campus.
Several years ago, the Commonwealth of Virginia passed a law that required aspiring young boat drivers to pass a test on boating safety before they were allowed to drive any watercraft. Fran was sharing that our grandson, Austin, had stayed on-line for most of one night in order to pass the test before his family arrived at our home. He passed the test and became the first of our grandchildren to drive our personal water craft. On hearing Fran brag about Austin, one of her grandmotherly friends remarked that she knew the test quite well because she had taken and passed it several times while posing as her three grandchildren. No wonder some young people cheat, their grandmothers set the example.
The deterioration of high ethical standards is certainly a failure and as lying, cheating and stealing become more commonplace, failure prevention practices should surely be established. Character should count and honesty needs a champion. There is an urban legend that George Washington once said, “I cannot lie; I chopped down the cherry tree.” Time and distance may hide a lot of past wrongs but would any of the founding fathers of the United States ever believe that a President could lie; lie to the public, the media and his family and still be reelected to the highest office in the land? Has political honesty totally died? Candidates for public office often make statements to increase their chances for reelection with almost total disregard for the truth. As failure analysts, we must not accept any shading of the truth and we must never act like a political candidate. We must establish a standard for truthfulness and ethical behavior and fortunately, we can help construct the pathway to honesty because such a pathway can begin with us.
Our reports, our depositions, our presentations and our lives must tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Sometimes this is hard because the evidence is contradictory. At times this is not what the customer wants. However, we must always commit to an ancient honor system that states, I will not lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those who do.
The first step in the deterioration of ethics is the acceptance of unethical behavior in others. Lockheed Martin didn’t accept unethical behavior, even when it cost them several promising employees. The Coast Guard Academy doesn’t accept unethical behavior and the Cadets know it. When Ms. Eldridge quoted the exit interview statement that “everyone cheats on academic courses,” Fran overheard one Cadet whisper, “not here.” We need to shout “not here,” “not now,” “not on our watch.”