We have all encountered a person who explains what they may term a “great idea” or their approach on a decision to us and when we hear it, we think to ourselves: “didn’t anyone ever tell them that is insane?” For example, hypothetical big firm law partner says to you, “I am in the market for new car. My mom told me I have to get a BMW and it should be forest green. So I just bought a new forest green BMW” or “My mom said I should not date a guy three years younger than me so I turned down dinner from the guy since he is younger than me.”
When you hear these type of statements, you really want to say: “You are in your forties, you are a partner in a law firm, can you either consult with someone else other than your mom or make these decisions yourself? Because you are just talking crazy to listen to your mother on all of this.” But, unless you are this person’s dearest friend, it is unlikely that you will explain to them how insane their decision-making process is.
This demonstrates that most people bring to their decision-making process the habits and methods that they have always employed to make a decision, for example, turning to their mother. So, although many people in positions of authority may not rely on their mother’s advice to make their decisions, they may be relying on other equally inappropriate decision-making processes. In fact, they may even be relying on decision-making processes that walk them right into a legal or ethical wrong. John Dean, Nixon’s White House counsel during Watergate is an example. He decided to just rely on the older, “wiser” attorneys in the room rather than rely on what he knew the law to be. As a result, a whole bunch of illegal and unethical decisions were not questioned and instead were carried out.
I think most people do want to make the legal and ethical decision. But when someone does not have the life experience; or never had a good role model; or their character and integrity never matured, for them to make a legal and ethical decision, they need to get that guidance somewhere else. Their employer can provide this direction by providing creative, direct, and applicable ethics training. Good ethics training can give people who do not have the ethical compass a path for decision-making that they never had.
Almost every time I have ever delivered ethics training, after the training someone contacts me and asks me about a decision they have to make or did make, and they are not sure of the legal and ethical implications of the decision. Similarly, when I have worked with clients that have found an executive or employee has done something wrong and the client has asked me to educate the person on the legal or ethical choice that they should have made, the person inevitably is amazed that there was a different route to take – the legal and ethical route. (Caveat: This whole analysis changes when the wrongdoer acted knowingly and intentionally when they made their choice.)
Through both one-on-one counseling and group ethics training, businesses may really do themselves a whole lot of good and may avoid a whole lot of bad when they actually deliver ethical guidance. This rings true when you reflect on the crazy way some people make a decision – “Mom, a Russian government official is prepared to give my business the sale, I just need to make sure their nephew gets a great job in our investment banking department – do you think I should give him the job?” (Note: Many mom’s, like mom, would get this right.)
One more thing on this topic: When the person in your business, a leader, an executive or employee, outlines some kind of crazy, convoluted, unethical and/or possibly illegal decision – and your lawyer hears of it, they do not have the prerogative to silently let that process continue – as the person did in the above mentioned BMW purchasing decision. Your lawyer is not entitled to remain quiet, they represent your business and they need to open their mouths and direct that decision making toward a legal and ethical process. But since your lawyer is not there for every decision in the business – you need some good training.