I was visiting my friend last week just as two scandals broke. We watched the headlines – Lockheed Martin’s incoming CEO, Christopher Kubasik, resigned his position as a result of having a “close personal relationship” with a subordinate. Then, General David Petraeus’ resignation as Director of the CIA hit the news. His departure is a result of his admitting to an extra-marital affair with his biographer. Both careers are ruined, and their untimely and unexpected departures will cause turmoil in organizations vital to our national security.
My friend is a member of the defense community working for a firm which manufactures tanks. He’s an engineer with an engineer’s bent for facts and analysis. He shook his head. He looked at me and said, “You know what this means, don’t you?” I wasn’t sure I did. “More training for them –that’s what they’ll say. The next thing we’ll hear is that we all have to go through another online compliance course, review our code of conduct, and sign off.” Let’s just say my friend is right – after all, he does have the experience of a 30-year career to back him up. Then apply his assumption to Lockheed Martin, which has about 130,000 employees. If each employee takes a two hour course, that’s more than a quarter of a million hours of training. If the average wage and benefit cost for time away from the job is $40.00 per hour, these courses will cost Lockheed at least ten million dollars, not counting charges for course content and any other related expenses.
Learning is important, but to be meaningful, the lessons have to change and sustain daily behavior. As I’ve written before, the most serious forms of misconduct do not generally involve abstract principles that are hard to explain or understand: Don’t steal, don’t have workplace affairs or overly personal relationships, don’t lie, and don’t cover up facts. Those are the kinds of behaviors which rock organizations and shatter lives, and when they do make news, it’s typically because of the misdeeds of senior executives and leaders.
The problem does not lie in an executive’s ability to understand these rules; it’s rather in their ability to apply them to their own conduct. From all I’ve learned, I believe many who get into trouble believe they are immune from the standards that govern everyone else. This is why the reaction of training for “them” as a first response is misguided. It will do little to stop the most serious infractions. Ultimately, if that’s all that’s done, it will waste a lot of time and money focusing on the wrong audience.
Instead, what organizations need to do is to start at the top. Everyone knows the basics – the key is to make sure that leaders understand that these rules also apply to them, no exceptions. In fact, even more so, as the more public a role the actors play, the more devastating the impact of a scandal is to that person’s name and standing, as well as to the organization.
Values, standards and key behavioral principles need to be understood, modeled, and effectively communicated and followed, but HR leaders must start this type of training at the apex of the organization, not the middle and below, to guard against the greatest risks.
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