Dubious Behavior On the Job

June 29, 2001

Five years ago at Ohio University, I was asked to lead a campus debate about ethics. The university's president, Robert Glidden, was concerned that we were not discussing workplace values with our students or each other.

At the time, ethics projects like ours were relatively rare. They have since mushroomed with institutes, endowed chairs, civility movements, character-education programs, and Web sites -- the most popular of which may be Florida State University's, on whose editorial board I sit.

As I've worked with people on my own campus and elsewhere over the years, I've begun to notice that the same behaviors -- lying, manipulating, gossiping, coveting, etc. -- kept coming up in question-and-answer sessions. People who caught others in lies or felt manipulated, deceived, or cheated, wanted to know how they could use ethics to resolve conflicts.

Of course, we never mention names in such talks. (That would be inappropriate disclosure.) Neither do we resolve individual disputes. (That would be the job of our professional mediators.) We just deal with unethical habits as a part of the human experience.

Such habits are a seldom-discussed aspect of the career experience, too. Professors and administrators leave jobs, or become disappointed in new ones, because of dubious behaviors that overwhelm them.

Ethical maladies are of course not unique to academe. They are common in business and government, but with one critical difference -- tenure. We don't transfer easily into other departments on campus like feuding corporate managers do, or get voted out of office regularly. In sum, we are stuck with each other. That makes accounting for dubious behaviors especially important in academe, and critical for good morale.

That said, here is my list of six dubious behaviors that threaten the vitality of academic life, and a few suggestions on how to deal with them:

Assuming you own a lie after you tell it.

Lying, like fiction, is a creative act requiring a person to invent details and viewpoints and to foresee reactions and outcomes. So liars feel that they own copyrights to their fabrications. They typically underestimate the consequences of their untruths and envision happier endings than what usually happens in real life.

Academics have shared many examples of lies they've been told. An administrator promises a department a new faculty position and then reneges. Or a job applicant claims, but cannot immediately produce, a publication listed on his vita. Confronted, the administrator or the applicant may have a good excuse -- the position fell through, the publication is in press. But sometimes they don't, so they lie. A person caught in a lie will continue to lie, qualify, or justify the original assertion. That can have serious repercussions.

It is difficult to get away with a lie in academe. An administrator who tells an untruth at a meeting, say, may believe that colleagues of lesser rank are uninformed about an executive decision or policy. But the truth is, we're all so amazingly connected, and not just by the Internet. We serve on committees across campus, lunch with others in the know, and share hobbies or parental responsibilities that bring us into regular contact with a cross-section of university personnel.

The moral? Never underestimate your audience. When tempted to lie, imagine the unhappy ending of being found out and decide whether it is worth the risk. Lying squanders creativity. Reinvest that in lectures or research.

Assuming you have two options: to lie or tell the truth.

Sometimes truth is untimely, inappropriate, sensitive, private, or privileged. For instance, at a workshop, a professor confided that an adversary had confronted her in public and demanded an explanation about her part in a policy decision. The professor felt obliged to tell the truth.

In such a case, the adversary probably heard the truth through a filter of self-interest, misinterpreting facts. Alas, the truth heard through such a filter can be more damaging than no truth at all. Knowing that, some people in tense situations decide to lie, believing that they have only two choices. Lies may temporarily ease tension but also require continual shoring up (see above).

Actually, we enjoy a wide range of choices. We do not have to discuss the issue at hand until we're able to deal with it effectively. We can also change the topic to better suit the occasion. Or we can tell the real truth: that we find the discussion untimely or inappropriate. Truth will set you free, but only if you respect it enough to share it with the right people at the right time and place so that it has maximum, positive impact.

Not counting or cutting your losses.

We witness this flaw of Shakespearean tragedies regularly in academe. A relatively minor problem, error, misjudgment, miscommunication, or momentary lapse in character is denied or ignored. A timely apology or acknowledgement is withheld. Criticism mounts, as do denials, precipitating more errors and lapses and even triggering cover-ups that eventually jeopardize a person's job and reputation.

Most campuses have experienced the consequences of this flaw. An administrator or a professor wrongly accuses a student of academic misconduct or takes liberties with or bullies an advisee or assistant, then fails to apologize or even acknowledge an action, upping the ante, until parents with lawyers get involved. The stakes rise, as do costs -- legal and professional. When the smoke clears, as it inevitably does, all that is left is the ego of an otherwise decent person who should have counted a loss as a loss and gone on with life.

Everyone suffers setbacks or acts unconscionably. That's an accepted fact in business and government, but not in academe. Everything in higher education is a progression, from the degrees we earn and grant -- baccalaureate to postdoctorate -- to the positions we hold or apply for -- assistant professor through full professor and then, if ambition strikes, from chair to director, dean, provost, and president.

In reality, a career rarely progresses without setbacks. Successful people count or cut their losses, find closure, and can focus again on students, research, or achievement. In sum, they stay on the career track and let others deny and derail.

Listening for motive instead of for meaning.

People rarely listen to each other as attentively as they wish others would listen to them. Employees and supervisors who do not trust each other typically listen for motive instead of for meaning.

In seminar after seminar, on my own campus and on others, the topic of how to handle "guilt by association" arises. An untenured professor picks as a mentor someone with whom another powerful colleague is feuding. Once an untenured professor confided to me, "I thought this stuff ended when I had to pick my dissertation committee." The behavior continues in promotion and tenure committees, in faculty meetings, at lunch, and in the hall -- wherever colleagues gather.

To make this situation right, listen carefully to advocates and adversaries. Have courage to support good ideas without worrying about what others will think, for guilt by association is intimidation -- whether practiced by friend or foe.

Telling others what they are apt to believe rather than what is true.

This unethical behavior is the chief cause of bad morale. Typically an employee with access to a decision-maker analyzes that person's fears, likes, and concerns and manipulates him or her on occasion to achieve an outcome or subvert a rival. The tactic raises doubts about a third party often without that third party even realizing why he or she has suddenly fallen out of favor.

At workshops participants often complain that they suspect others of gossip but cannot prove it. One woman at a workshop reported that once she overheard a colleague spreading gossip and confronted her on the spot. "Did the gossip stop then?" I asked. No, she replied. She had come across as defensive and so gave substance to the gossip, as if it were true. Another colleague at the retreat consoled her. "What goes around comes around," she said. "Just be patient."

That is true to an extent. What goes around may well come around, but not without cost to a department's morale, efficiency, and reputation. Fact is, sometimes gossipmongers achieve their ends at others' expense. But not without risk to their own credibility. You can heighten that risk, although not necessarily stop the behavior, if you resolve to excel in your job and be considerate of others, even of those whose motives are suspect. In doing so, you will enjoy the satisfaction of compiling an excellent work record and promoting civil behavior at the workplace. Witnessing that, gossipmongers may try to shore up lies with more rumors until others see the situation for what it is. That outcome not only increases morale but sets standards of behavior, raising confidence levels.

Coveting what you lack and losing what you have.

The grass is greener on the other side of the campus; so is the money. Or so it may seem. Academic envy not only involves salary but power and even people. When employees obsess over what they lack or cannot have, they devalue what they do have, cease to nurture or protect it, and eventually jeopardize or lose it, along with their reputations. Without the latter, a person cannot advance.

When colleagues at seminars, workshops, and retreats complain about what they lack -- how this person was rewarded or promoted without merit, or how that person has sold out to a director, chair, or supervisor -- I remind them to protect what they have, lest they lose it.

Legitimate complaints, of course, should be lodged with ombudsmen, equity officers, or lawyers. Those are legal rather than ethical issues. But as far as ethics are concerned, remember that you must maintain your credibility and be at peak form in your current station, if you hope to advance.

If you are like most of us, you will recognize first colleagues, and then yourself, reflected in the habits above. That's how the ego works. Then the conscience kicks in (or should) and shatters our presumptions. The hard truth is that all of us contribute to morale problems because we interact with each other. Sometimes we overreact and trigger retribution in a seemingly never-ending cycle of blame and accusation. Problems that engulf casts of people usually have required casts of people to create. All of us are responsible for resolving them.

Michael Bugeja, special assistant to the president at Ohio University, has conducted more than 175 seminars, classes, and workshops around the country on ethics. He is the designer of an award-winning, character-education program at Ohio that emphasizes personal accountability, trust, and honor.