Workplace Ethics: As Jim Tressel Shows, How You Handle It Counts

Another leader of a multi-million program is out due to ethics violations but this time, it isn’t in Corporate America.

Ohio State University football coach Jim Tressel resigned yesterday due to NCAA violations impacting his student athletes:

Jim Tressel, who guided Ohio State to its first national title in 34 years, resigned Monday amid NCAA violations from a tattoo-parlor scandal that sullied the image of one of the country’s top football programs.

“After meeting with university officials, we agreed that it is in the best interest of Ohio State that I resign as head football coach,” Tressel said in a statement released by the university. “The appreciation that [wife] Ellen and I have for the Buckeye Nation is immeasurable.”

It’s a case that every business leader can learn from when dealing with ethical issues in the workplace.

Success and integrity

Tressel was a successful coach at Ohio State for more than a decade. He led the team to its first national championship in over three decades in 2002 and a dominating performance over the Big 10 conference during his time as coach.

On the outside, he was everything you wanted as the face and leader of your football team. A strong but reserved leader. Midwest sensibility that fit in the Buckeyes’ more passionate fans. And more importantly, an aura of integrity. They not only won, but they won the right way. Something that seemed increasingly rare in college football.

What came out in the last few months gave many people a reason to reconsider it.

Violations and more?

Before Ohio State was slated to appear in the Sugar Bowl last year, it was found that Buckeye quarterback Terrelle Pryor and five other players were involved in a scheme that netted them improper benefits (a violation of NCAA rules). While the players were allowed to play in the bowl game, they were suspended for five games the next season.

Earlier this year, it was revealed that Tressel had learned about these possible violations in April 2010 and had never reported it to the school or NCAA officials. Similarly, when questioned about it during the initial investigation, he denied knowing about the violations in spite of being informed about it.

An investigative report by Sports Illustrated also has alleged that Tressel has had more issues with violations than the average sports fan would know about. It points to a possibility that this may be less surprising and more of the same.

How they dealt with it

Of course, the more important story for every leader out there is how Ohio State University dealt with it.

In short, they didn’t.

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When the news of player violations first came to light, no punishment was handed out for Tressel. After all, he said he had no knowledge of the situation and they had no reason to doubt him.

Once a further investigation found that he was sent emails about the possible violations months before the first investigation took place, that should have given the Ohio State administration some pause in their investigation. Instead, they slapped a two game suspension (eventually raised to five games to match the player suspensions) and a $250,000 fine on his $3.5 million salary.

All of the while, Ohio State University administration publicly supported the coach through the ordeal.

And unless the story changes to Tressel being forced to resign (as has been suggested), that’s all they did.

How to learn from it

Tressel made two grave mistakes that ultimately cost his job:

  1. He didn’t report possible violations at all, a requirement of his job and his ethical duty.
  2. He lied about receiving information about the possible violations during the investigation.

For most organizations, you don’t wait for strike three in an ethics issue when it’s your top leader. I’m sure Tressel is a fine individual and he can recover, but for an organization that prides itself in playing differently, the only answer from the beginning was to dismiss once the facts became clear.

In a program in the public eye, that’s difficult to do and it may have been more politically advantageous to let him fall on his sword and resign in his own way. But how the university deals with ethics issue is important as the ethics issue itself. If the university is found to be toothless in enforcement when successful (even to the bitter end), it gives those inheriting the program later down the line a blueprint and it gives every observer the proverbial line in the sand.

When it comes to your company, where will that line in the sand be? And will you be comfortable with how you have dealt with ethics violations when your customers, competitors and employees find out?

Lance Haun is the practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy, where he focuses on researching and writing about work technology. He is also a former editor for ERE Media, broadly covering the world of human resources, recruiting, and sourcing. 
He has been featured as a work expert in publications like the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, MSNBC, Fast Company, and other HR and business websites.
He's based in his Vancouver, Wash., home office with his wife and adorable daughter. You can reach him by email or find him off-topic on Twitter.