The Price of Principles: What Do They Say About a Company’s Culture?

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Apr 8, 2014

The New York Times published an article about yet another successful, high profile sports coach who has been caught lying about his credentials.

Times writer Juliet Macur interviewed Manhattan College men’s basketball Coach Steve Masiello a few days prior to the revelation that he had lied about having a college degree. He got caught, as others have, with a background check as he started a new job.

During the interview, Masiello preached accountability and described how he had learned the importance of accountability from an early mentor.

So my question is, “what, really, is accountability,” and “to whom is one accountable?”

What does a lie tell us about a person?

Masiello is not the first coach to be caught in the same lie, although others seem to have sloughed off the stigma and recovered nicely. Per the article, George O’Leary survived the embarrassment of being proven a liar by Notre Dame only to bounce back and bring the University of Central Florida into the football spotlight.

As the Times‘ reporter reflected on the interview and the revelation, she was struck by the incongruity of his words. When one statement is a lie, can you believe subsequent statements? Perhaps that’s a rhetorical question; perhaps not.

There are more than 50 comments on The New York Times article. What baffles me is that the comments are so diverse.

Many call Coach Masiello “scum,” “slimy,” and “fraud.” Others completely missed the crux, and disputed facts having nothing to do with Masiello. Still others didn’t see what all the fuss was about. I find that baffling.

There was one comment that stood out to me:

“What are you people upset about? That he didn’t have a degree or that he lied about it? Everyone lies. He just happened to get caught. Lack of a degree didn’t seem to hamper Gates or Jobs, did it?”

The principles you build a business on

Oh my. I guess I had a hunch that people felt that way, but to write it for the world to see? That’s a bit frightening.

He’s still missing the point. It isn’t the degree that is at issue, it is that he said he had one when he did not. This is a material lie when you think about who he is coaching – young people pursuing the same degree he claimed.

Let me take this back to the world of business and HR, which is my venue.

Almost every organization that posts guiding principles and values touts “honesty” or “integrity” among them. So at what point are people held accountable for violating those values?

That, my friend, IS a rhetorical question, but one on which anyone in the business world should spend some time reflecting.

We learn honesty as children. We are taught that by our parents. We tell the truth even though there might be bad consequences for us because telling the truth is a fundamental value. At that point, we learn trust.

The price of honesty

In our business organizations, we say we want trust. We say we want honesty. But at what price?

What are we willing sacrifice if we find we cannot trust? Our top sales person who got there through deceptive means? A top designer who “borrows” a design? A trader who makes millions for the company walking on the wrong side of the rules?

I have been in organizations that struggled with this question. I have also been in organizations that don’t struggle with the question at all. Individuals who are not acting honestly are gone. Period.

People learn from others and from the culture. What are people learning in an organization that rationalizes dishonesty and provides no consequences?

Those words of principle and value on an organization’s wall have got to mean something. They have to be the principles that are carried out in every organizational dealing, not just when it is convenient.

If not, they are simply empty words and empty words cannot foster trust. I do worry a bit that we are becoming complacent with empty words.

This originally appeared on the ….@ the intersection of learning & performance blog.

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