What’s So Hard about Doing the Right Thing?

Plenty! If it were easy then more people would to it.

There is no question that most people understand and want to “do the right thing.” What makes it so difficult to consistently stand up and do the right thing is that the requirement to do so usually confronts us at the wrong time.

All of us have been sickened by the nature of the alleged serial child abuse charges that have been leveled against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. No crime triggers deeper contempt and disgust than attacks on the innocence of children. In this case, the wound is made even deeper by suspicions of a decade-long cover-up of these activities by the iconic football coach Joe Paterno and the most-senior administrators at Penn State. In fact, it is the specter of a cover-up that has become the focus of the scandal.

More media attention and discussion has been fixated on the cover-up of Sandusky’s alleged crimes, than on the repugnance of the actual crimes and concern for the purported victims. The reason for this is that in America we have this on-going, simplistic and romanticized belief that if only we “do the right thing,” then everything will take care of itself. In our society, having knowledge of a wrongdoing and failing “to do the right thing” by reporting or stopping it, is often considered worse than the transgression itself.

In the Watergate political scandal of the 1970s, it was not the two-bit burglary of Democratic headquarters in Washington that brought down President Nixon, but rather the orchestrated cover-up of that activity that opened a Pandora’s Box of political hijinks. In the Penn State scandal, despite the fact that they apparently complied with the existing policies and laws of the time, Joe Paterno and Mike McQuerary (then the graduate assistant coach who is purported to have observed some of Sandusky’s actions) have received as much – if not more – vilification for their failure “to do the right thing,” than has Sandusky for allegedly committing the crimes.

It will be months, if not years, before we really know what happened at Penn State, but even when we do, using the scandal as a trigger for discussing “doing the right thing,” is not really appropriate, because the lines between right and wrong in this case are so bright. The truth is that if McQuerary witnessed the abuse and Paterno, along with the administrators knew of it and did not take actions to stop it, then their failure goes beyond merely not doing the right thing; it becomes an affront to humanity. But there is a point to be made here.

If the clear-cut, egregious activities within the Penn State football program are not enough to crystallize the concept of doing the right thing in the minds of otherwise highly regarded individuals, then how is one to know what the right thing to do is when the lines are not bright, but cast in fuzzy shades of gray? This is especially the case in the business world, as discussed in this earlier blog.

It is not that difficult to understand or define the right thing to do, but that is not enough. What makes doing the right thing difficult is that often the test of doing the right thing never happens at the right time, a time when our lives are completely unfettered by any personal concerns we obviously have including jobs, career, finances, family, friends, health and well-being. In the real world we are always pestered by personal concerns that render our perceptions of what is honorable into a conflict between two “rights.” And worse, there are often no clear boundaries as to what type of activity is actionably wrong and what is not. An example will prove my point.

Your Career in Motion

Let’s say you are early in your career with a good company, married with a baby and another on the way. You observe your boss systematically cheating customers in order to enhance the performance of his department and ultimately the company. You see him receiving accolades and even increased bonuses, but you know his behavior is a sham and certainly not the right thing to do.

What do you do? Do you challenge him? Do you report this activity to his boss? You have heard the exulted words of high ethics uttered by senior management and read the “policy guide” issued by Human Resources, but how do you know this activity is not being surreptitiously condoned or even encouraged by the higher-ups? (Enron and AIG come to mind here.) You are not actually taking part in this subterfuge, so should you just ignore it? Is that the right thing to do?

In the abstract it is easy to say that doing the right thing is – at the very least – reporting the improper activity. But what if your report seems to be ignored? Are you off the hook and have no further responsibility? Even worse, if you do report it and your boss survives with nothing more than a reprimand, what might this do to your personal well-being and your future with the company? In theory, of course, you could quit your job and find another; but in this economy, is that possible? Is now the right time to put you and your family’s financial future at risk? You could go halfway and say nothing while you look for another job, but is that the right thing to do?

This type of enigma is not an academic exercise. Anyone who has ever been in the business world, with ambitions to be successful and rise up the pyramid (and support a family) knows this type situation – and a wide variety of others – is more reality than theory. The real questions are:  At what point are you willing to dilute or even trade in “doing the right thing,” to protect your career by “going along to get along”? At what point do you break and become willing to rationalize the elements of “doing the right thing?”

We don’t have all the facts now, but it appears that Mike McQueary is a living example of the real life challenges that can be encountered when trying to do the right thing. Here is a young guy for which football has been his life. His burning ambition has been to become a head football coach. He was talented, worked hard and was willing to pay the price to achieve his goal. For McQueary, his testing crucible for doing the right thing was thrust upon him at the wrong time, when he witnessed one of his bosses engaged in despicable actions with a young boy in a shower. One can only imagine the thoughts, conflicts and even fear that must have gone through his mind at that time.

No one else was in the locker room and with his career at stake he could have walked away and said nothing. He did not step into the shower to confront his boss and stop the activity, but he didn’t ignore the wrongdoing either. What McQueary did was to follow the letter of the law at the time by reporting the incident to his boss Joe Paterno. This action allowed him to convince himself he had done the right thing and was thus absolved from taking any further action. (One has to wonder what action he would have taken if that had been his own son in the shower?) Of course we know now that McQueary sold his soul for his future and now he has none.

Fortunately, very few will ever be tested to do the right thing the way Mike McQueary (and for that matter, Joe Paterno) was, but all will be tested. We don’t know what form the test will take, but we do know that when it does come, it will not come at the right time. That will be the real test of our ability to do the right thing.

And the Moral of the Story …

What can we do to make sure that when we are tested to do the right thing, it will be at the right time for us to take the right actions?

When confronted with complicated and conflicting challenges, the best solutions are found in identifying simple things and simply doing them. The same concept works to prime us to meet what can be complicated and conflicting challenges to do the right thing  every time and any time they may come up. This comes down to two simple questions that cut through personal rationalizations and questionable behavior: How would it feel if I were the one being wronged by someone not doing the right thing? How would my actions appear if each and every one of them were transparent and would become fully public?

These are simple concepts for doing the right thing and if simply followed, then anytime will be the right time to do the right thing.


One response to “What’s So Hard about Doing the Right Thing?

  1. Pingback: What’s So Hard about Doing the Right Thing? | Underwriting Solutions LLC

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