The Penn State scandal has been all over the news these past few weeks and it got me thinking. I wondered how such a respected and seemingly professional establishment could have allowed this situation to go so far. How did these secrets stay buried for so long and how could an organization with such moral conviction let these decades-long accusations fester in the dark without follow-up?
Looking from the outside in, I can only assume that the internal communications and processes for handling crises are severely flawed on many levels. Here’s what I think we as business leaders can all learn and apply to our own organizations after watching the Penn State scandal unfold.
It’s the golden rule of public relations: attempting to hide a negative, potentially damaging situation within the company only makes it worse. By trying to bury the accusations against Sandusky, Penn State made the entire situation far worse by being exposed after it festered beneath the surface for years. I’ve seen it happen in many organizations. If someone in your organization—I don’t care who it is—is involved with something unethical or illegal, it must be dealt with immediately. Damage control processes need to be activated with your corporate communications folks and a crisis plan needs to be created. Because the truth will always come out, even if after many years in hiding.
Most companies have an open-door communication policy but many don’t live up to it. In the Penn State situation it was clear that Sandusky’s improprieties were witnessed and reported to superiors. Nothing was done about it. But something made the whistleblower stop there. Was he told to let it go? Was he made to feel like a detractor for blowing his whistle? Whatever the case may be, we can all learn that when an employee comes forward with something it must be taken seriously and there must be absolutely no element of discouragement or retribution for being the one that came forward. An open-door policy that is lived is one that instills a sense of comfort and safety for employees that need to bring bad things to light.
Joe Paterno is probably the most loved college coach of all time, and clearly a pillar of the Penn State organization—not just the football team. Yet even he is not immune from doing the right thing when faced with a difficult situation with one of his employees. All leaders should take this to heart. As a leader, you are responsible for the wellbeing of your company first. Personal relationships must take a back seat to the law.
Have you ever faced a difficult legal or ethical situation in your professional life? How did you choose to deal with it?
Howard Shore is a business growth expert who works with companies that want to maximize their growth potential by improving strategy, enhancing their knowledge, and improving motivation. To learn more about him or his firm please visit his website at activategroupinc.com or contact Howard Shore at (305) 722-7216 or firstname.lastname@example.org.