Imagine This… When Good People Are Asked To Do Bad Things

November 9, 2012 — 10 Comments

Imagine this:

You are a top administrator, in fact the Chief Operations Officer, for a highly reputable Center at a major university. This particular university happens to be the largest employer in the region. You are highly respected and everyone appreciates the work you do. One day your manager, the Center Director, comes to you and asks you to transfer $250,000 from a donor dependent, highly recognizable Institute at the University… into his personal business account that has nothing to do with  the cause the donors support – in fact, your manager’s other company develops a product that has nothing to do with curing the disease the Institute is responsible for. Your manager demands that this questionable transfer must happen before the end of the fiscal year – in two weeks! After collecting more information, the request is to effectively steal these funds from the donors of the Institute in order to fund a commercial business that both the head of the Institute and the head of the Center are highly vested in on the side….

What would you do?

This is a true story told to me by a client put in a terrible situation – should she do what is asked of her and risk being responsible for illegal activity that could result in her own demise or do the right thing – risking the loss of  her position, facing unemployment, and the loss of 50% of her family’s income?

I, like most of you, believe that business ethics must change if there is any hope of stemming the continuous abuse by corporate managers and leaders of the public trust. We look to education institutions as being the pillar of ethical behavior (and I believe in most cases they are), however in the above case, the faculty members we count on to establish ethical foundations in future business leaders are the same faculty members that are stealing from donors, pressuring employees to conduct unethical activities and conducting fraudulent activity. Worse, the administration of the university refused to hold their faculty members accountable for their unethical behaviors, thus condoning them. If we cannot count on universities to conduct themselves with honor and professionalism, is it any wonder that establishing strong business ethics in the business world has gone awry?

For the next few weeks, we will be discussing ethics in business. I would love for you to engage the discussion and let us know what you would do or tell us about unique experiences that you have had that called ethics to the front and center. Please feel free to contact me at or by visiting our website at Check back next week for the next installment of Leadership Across Boundaries and Borders.

Please note: The names of both the guilty and the innocent have been omitted for the protection of all.


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Sheri is The Global Coach, founder of Luminosity Global Consulting Group, Global Executive Coach, Speaker, Writer and Global Business and Cultural Expert.

10 responses to Imagine This… When Good People Are Asked To Do Bad Things

  1. We are all currently experiencing another situation involving unethical or amoral behavior, although having more heinous consequences, by Penn State and its conscious or indifferent decision to ignore former football coach Jerry Sandusky’s behavior. It is ludicrous to believe that the credibility of ethical behavior will be acknowledged and embraced by students when the educational institution demonstrates hypocritical behavior. The educational institutions who signify the bastions of knowledge and learning, must exemplify leadership of ethical behavior by example or be held accountable for shortfalls in integrity and trust. Penn State’s president and two other senior people are being charged for failure to report their knowledge of Mr. Sandusky’s behavior to the authorities and will be judged accountable or not by a jury.

    The situation that you have described above definitely puts the Chief Operating Officer in a bind when weighing the right thing to do versus risking the personal consequences that might occur. Many companies, and perhaps some universities, employ an Ombudsman whose responsibility is to receive from employees on a confidential basis information which might indicate individual behavior that violates either the law or the institution’s own principles. If this resource were available, it would allow the COO to disclose the intended unauthorized transfer of these donor-earmarked funds without jeopardizing that person’s own career and livelihood. The Ombudsman could then channel the information to the appropriate executives to mobilize their involvement.

    • Well said, Neal! These are sad times we live in, when those at the highest levels in our universities engage in unethical and hypocritical activities and expect to have no retribution! The Penn State situation is incredibly sad (and my heart goes out to the many victims), but it does have a silver lining in that it did finally come out and the accused parties will be held accountable (or not) in court. The very sad thing is that this is more the exception than the rule.

      I will say again and again that I hold Universities in high esteem and believe there are many shining examples within these institutions, but I will also say that they are fortresses that deem to protect their own. There is a very clear distinction between how faculty and administration are treated. In the case I presented in brief, the COO went to every available resource to ask for support and protection – and was denied at every level through to the President of the University. She was administration, while her boss, the Vice-Provost and the Head of the Institution were all faculty… enough said. To me, this is shameful behavior on the part of the University at it’s highest levels. They actively chose to enable, indeed encourage, unethical and fraudulent behavior within their institution and thought nothing of ruining someone’s career who declined to participate.

      Shame on those who engage in these activities, but also on those who live in fear – putting themselves at risk and quietly allowing donors, who give money to support specific causes, to be stolen from!

  2. Would it make since to put this question to members of congress?! Probably get the same song and dance but is the kind of questioning & preparation they should get.

  3. This is one of the reasons since graduate school I have worked very hard with my spouse to live within the means of 1/2 our total income after taxes. it wasn’t easy at times but it left both of us in a position of being able to make the right choice without to face such difficult choices of integrity vs my family.

    • Good move on your part Ken! I do think the money is an aspect and not being tied to it does provide an element of freedom, but as for my client – her career was extremely important to her and the fact that she was fired for refusing to conduct illegal/unethical activity is just an atrocity. Maybe some would walk away not needing the money and feeling okay with that, but the damage to her career, her pride in doing an exceptional job, being a good person and the fact that immoral/illegal activities are condoned at the most senior levels of the university felt equally bad to losing the money.

  4. She should do the right thing and not do the illegal transfer. She needs to gather as much evidence as she can to protect herself from any threats from her boss.

    • Fortunately she did, but the result has been a long drawn out legal battle (4 years now). However, she places her morals and the pursuit of an ethical workplace far above the career and money that she has sacrificed in the hopes that it will make a difference for both herself, and others treated the same way by the University, in the long run!

  5. In a society in which Donald Trump, though discredited in the eyes of many, continues to wield cultural and economic power* because money and success are commonly seen to justify everything and anything, is any of this surprising?

    In US society today the ethos of Wall Street rules, where everyone gambles on success, much as the starry-eyed participants in American Idol do. You push your talent; if you lose, you try something else. But if you win, once success is achieved, you belong to the elite and the worst that can happen, in case of misbehavior, is bad publicity… which is always better than no publicity at all.

    In extreme cases, for those who believe their success has made the immune from risk, corruption and extortion may lead to judicial sanctions, but that is rare. Playing the laws of probability (i.e. gambling) means pursuing any opportunity that you “believe in”. And in a world of iPods, i-Phones and i-Pads, the “I” is central and the “we” peripheral (the “them” being either non-existent or quite simply “the enemy”). Belief in one’s own cause — however contradictory with one’s public mission — obscures everything else.

    You can call this the latest transformation of the old virtue of “self-reliance”. Some of us call it pathological degeneracy.

    * as far away as the east coast of Scotland!

    • So true, Peter! There are so many temptations, but where/when do we draw the line between right and wrong and do the right thing? True, taking a stand comes with a cost, but personally I would rather suffer the cost than continue to let these behaviors run rampant in the workplace. If those who have succeeded lose track of their ethical and moral obligations, and no one shouts from the rooftops, there is not a lot of hope left.

      My sincere hope is that those of us who do know right from wrong will take the initiative and stand up against wrong/illegal/unethical behavior en mass – specifically when it is occurring within executive levels of organizations. I can’t help but think that if this type of behavior is condoned at high levels, with no one taking on the fight for ethical workplaces, how dismal must it look from the lower levels of the organization? I strongly believe in standing up for ethics and morals in the workplace, but it can be very difficult for example, when the Head of HR and the University President condone unethical/immoral activities within their institution!Just the same, I, for one, will not condone it by saying nothing.

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