Ethical Lessons from the Penn State Case

The Penn State scandal provides a powerful ethics lesson for all businesses.

By Darnell Lattal, Ph.D., CEO and President, Aubrey Daniels International (ADI)

Penn State’s story of bad decisions and bad behavior sparked a national debate about personal moral conduct and the school’s perceived institutional failure to do the right thing. There were tremendous failures of judgment, of action, and of inaction. Since none of us are immune from acting unethically, what can we do to ensure our workplaces are not caught in our own failures of judgment, of action, and of inaction?

Some behaviors are immediately wrong—they violate standards that are visible and known. They are not only unethical; they are often illegal. What is also of significant concern about the Penn State scandal are the actions that did not go far enough—that followed the letter but not the spirit of the law. Did the person do enough to be ethical? Did the person have a responsibility to ensure something more happened? A final and repeated question in this debacle: Just what were they, all of them, thinking?

From its insular, hierarchical world that discouraged open discussion to a belief that its leaders were infallible, Penn State provides a textbook case on how ethical breakdowns can happen in any business. Rather than firing executives after it’s too late or assuming employees will behave ethically, here are some principles of behavioral science that can be employed to build an “ethical infrastructure” that defines, measures, and reinforces ethical behavior, including:

  1. Evaluating Impact not Intent. Understanding the science of human behavior can show you how to get more of what you want. However, getting more of what you want does not mean that will end up being ethical. This is an important point. It is not the intention that matters…it is the effectof what is said and done. That is where ethical behavior is evaluated. Few businesses look carefully enough at what happens to behavior after a choice is made. We rarely evaluate and learn from unintended consequences.
  2. Building in routine practices and sharing successes. Good companies struggle every day to “be ethical.” Nevertheless, it is the rare company that holds an “ethics” huddle in the morning, before beginning their workday. Rare, indeed, to find active discussions by bosses and employees about real ethical dilemmas top leaders and employees faced and how they solved them. Such actions help to create an ethical framework meant to avoid ever having to ask, “What were they thinking?”
  3. Evaluating behavior against a matrix of competing values. In a pluralistic society, we are faced with many important values that at one time or another override a desire we have. If you know of or have ever experienced pressure to be a good team player by being asked not to report something or to fudge the last bits of data at month’s end, and in so doing, the common good, fairness, justice, and self-interest are all forgotten—a balance and prioritizing among competing values—then you know how difficult it can be to choose. It may seem obvious, but so much about ethical behavior is taking clear action, not passively turning away or doing something “just once.” A matrix of typical experiences and competing ethical values facing workers on a daily basis can sharpen ethical sensitivities.
  4. Ethical Standards: Key Business Metric owned by all leaders. Like safe practices, ethical practices need to be designed into the fabric of daily work, monitored, evaluated, shaped, and maintained. One accident is one too many. One ethical misstep is one too many. The company is accountable, not just one bad character. It is wrong to look to fix the problem by firing the employee. That is never enough.
  5. Decision-making skills. Research demonstrates that the higher up an individual is in an organization and the more they’re forced to make quick decisions, the poorer those decisions become. One poor decision can put a company at the top of the slippery slope to poor ethics; it’s important to study your own decision-making patterns and learn to make quick decisions as carefully and ethically as possible.

Leaders must work every day, to ensure the ethical footprint they leave makes a serious impression on the companies, communities, customers, and employees they serve. By incorporating these principles into their day-to-day operations, businesses can avoid ethical breakdowns like the one that has so devastated Penn State.

Darnell Lattal is the CEO and president of Aubrey Daniels International (ADI). Lattal has worked with many of the world’s leading organizations to create a lasting business-wide commitment to ethical principles. She also writes regularly about workplace ethics on the company’s blog and is the author of “Ethics at Work.” For more information, visit

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