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Realign Your Company's Moral Compass

Lessons to be learned from 2 cringe-worthy stories of dishonesty
December 18, 2009
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/204420

As we begin to look back on 2009, we see a year full of corporate greed and people taking advantage of the system. Even though my own company has won awards as a best place to work, where people live by a set of core values, I realize that no matter how strong your corporate culture is, there will come a time when those values will be tested. No corporate culture is perfect, but if you have the right plan in place you can overcome obstacles. Here are a couple of instances that tested our corporate culture and some tips on how to keep your company on course.

One of our holiday parties had a casino night theme and each employee was given a certain number of drink coupons and poker chip tickets. Employees would trade their tickets in for poker chips and play for a few hours, then cash in their chips for a chance to win prizes.

Toward the end of the evening, a blackjack dealer was tipped off to some suspicious behavior. A longtime employee (and the last person anyone would have suspected) had tried to cash in an exceedingly large number of poker chip tickets, way more than each employee was originally given.

When confronted, he said his teammates had given him the extra tickets, and claimed an entire department had craftily purchased a roll of tickets similar to those used at the party in an attempt to get more poker chips. The accused workers vehemently denied the charges.

In the end, the original suspect was the lone mastermind of a plot to win prizes on the sly. He confessed and apologized to everyone. Unfortunately his teammates were not forgiving. He eventually resigned because he was so ashamed of his actions and was unable to regain trust from his peers. In addition to management's official show of disapproval, it was important to insist on accountability among peers and remember that we're all obligated to hold one another responsible.

Just weeks after the casino night incident, a similar occurrence caused me much more concern. We have a recognition program that allows employees to thank a peer for upholding one of the company's core values. The employee receives a certificate and "Beryl Bucks," or company funny money, that he or she can use to buy company-branded merchandise. At the end of each quarter, we combine all the certificates and the winner in each core value category gets to choose a prize worth $250 in cash.

An entire department ended up sending certificates to one another at an absurdly high rate to boost their chance of snagging a prize. How could a company values program turn half a dozen workers with spotless records into scam artists? How could they set out to rip-off a program that applauds them for doing the right thing? If corrupt business cultures and a general lack of values helped break the banks, a more principled approach is the obvious fix.

What can you do to ensure your employees' moral compasses are in the right place?

My reflection convinced me that executives and less-exalted employees share all the basic human traits--good and bad. And while it is easy to curse the crooks, we'll never fix the system until core business values regain their proper place.