What Penn State and MF Global Had in Common

Organizations that experience ethical lapses that bring them front-page/Huffington Post headlines have common practices and issues. Penn State is now grappling with the departures of its president, athletic director, longstanding head football coach Joe Paterno, and a vice president following criminal charges of child sexual abuse against a former assistant football coach. Penn State lost so many leaders because of alleged failure to take action to stop the child sexual abuse, some of which may have occurred on the campus. MF Global’s bankruptcy trustee is hard at work trying to find $1.2 billion in missing client funds. MF Global collapsed after the firm’s former chairman, Jon Corzine, bet wrong on Greek government debt. Oddly, Mr. Corzine bet the funds would increase in value. Mr. Corzine has resigned, and it would be easier to list the federal agencies not investigating MF Global as opposed to listing those that are. From the SEC to the FBI to Congress, MF Global is under the microscope.

What do a hedge fund and a university have in common? Well, both are facing clean-up from accusations that destroy reputations and, in MF Global’s case, the ability to move forward. However, both may well be in their pickles because of decisions made as their ethical collapse lurched forward. One clear common factor and a certain precursor to headline ethical issues is the termination of dissenters. Silence those who raise issues within your organization and, well, you end dissent. Organizations with monolithic views are organizations that are vulnerable to ethical lapses.
Mr. Corzine fired his chief risk officer because, well, that chief risk officer had the temerity to disagree with Mr. Corzine on the Greek bet. Penn State’s standards and conduct officer clashed repeatedly with Coach Paterno over the level of discipline that was appropriate for student-athletes who violated the university’s code of conduct (and worse). At one point, Dr. Vicky Triponey wrote to the now-departed university president about her concerns following assaults by football players on other students, “I would respectfully ask that you do something to stop this atrocious behavior before this team and an entire generation of Penn State students leave here believing that this is appropriate and acceptable behavior within a civil university community.” Dr. Triponey would then resign, citing “philosophical differences.”

The resignation or termination of dissenters, of course, ends dissent from the departed ones. However, their departure also puts a big damper on remaining employees’ willingness to raise concerns. In short, get rid of those who disagree and disagreement ends. When disagreement ends, perspective departs. And when perspective departs, well, you find yourself betting on a failing Greece and failing to report conduct that makes us shudder.
Don’t drive out the dissenters – let ‘em speak, early and often.

About mmjdiary

Professor Marianne Jennings is an emeritus professor of legal and ethical studies from the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, retiring in 2011 after 35 years of teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in ethics and the legal environment of business. During her tenure at ASU, she served as director of the Joan and David Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics from 1995-1999. In 2006, she was appointed faculty director for the W.P. Carey Executive MBA Program. She has done consulting work for businesses and professional groups including AICPA, Boeing, Dial Corporation, Edward Jones, Mattel, Motorola, CFA Institute, Southern California Edison, the Institute of Internal Auditors, AIMR, DuPont, AES, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Motorola, Hy-Vee Foods, IBM, Bell Helicopter, Amgen, Raytheon, and VIAD. The sixth edition of her textbook, Case Studies in Business Ethics, was published in February 2011. The ninth edition of her textbook, Business: lts Legal, Ethical and Global Environment was published in January 2011. The 23rd edition of her book, Business Law: Principles and Cases, will be published in January 2013. The tenth edition of her book, Real Estate Law, will also be published in January 2013. Her book, A Business Tale: A Story of Ethics, Choices, Success, and a Very Large Rabbit, a fable about business ethics, was chosen by Library Journal in 2004 as its business book of the year. A Business Tale was also a finalist for two other literary awards for 2004. In 2000 her book on corporate governance was published by the New York Times MBA Pocket Series. Her book on long-term success, Building a Business Through Good Times and Bad: Lessons from Fifteen Companies, Each With a Century of Dividends, was published in October 2002 and has been used by Booz, Allen, Hamilton for its work on business longevity. Her latest book, The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse was published by St. Martin’s Press in July 2006 and has been a finalist for two book awards. Her weekly columns are syndicated around the country, and her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Reader's Digest. A collection of her essays, Nobody Fixes Real Carrot Sticks Anymore, first published in 1994 is still being published. She has been a commentator on business issues on All Things Considered for National Public Radio. She has served on four boards of directors, including Arizona Public Service (1987-2000), Zealous Capital Corporation, and the Center for Children with Chronic Illness and Disability at the University of Minnesota. She was appointed to the board of advisors for the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators in 2004 and served on the board of trustees for Think Arizona, a public policy think tank. She has appeared on CNBC, CBS This Morning, the Today Show, and CBS Evening News. In 2010 she was named one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Business Ethics by Trust Across America. Her books have been translated into four different languages. She received the British Emerald award for authoring one of their top 50 articles in management publications, chosen from over 15,000 articles. Personal: Married since 1976 to Terry H. Jennings, Maricopa County Attorney’s Office Deputy County Attorney; five children: Sarah, Sam, and John, and the late Claire and Hannah Jennings.
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