But everyone’s doing it

How can we prevent people from interpreting “aspirational” goals as an invitation (or a directive) to cheat?

One of the most common rationalizations for bad behaviour is the “standard practice” argument — everyone is doing it. It’s what my mother warned me against: “If all your friends were jumping off a cliff, would you do that too?”

The difficulty is that the person lying dazed at the bottom of the cliff is often the one who did the right thing. Taking the ethical path can cost you a lot.

Sometimes, the excuse that everybody does (or doesn’t do) it is just a pathetic attempt to excuse laziness or a weak sense of ethics. Lying on your resumé, cheating on your tax return or sneaking a look at the exam of the student next to you cannot really be blamed on other people. But sometimes the pressure is intense and the potential costs are high.

Doping in sport has been much in the news lately and it’s a good example of the pressure created when everyone (or at least a significant number of competitors) is cheating. Athletes get public and corporate support if they can show they are in the top ranks in the world and if some of those competitors are using performance-enhancing drugs, the athlete who is not doping may be shut out. Perhaps if you are the best in the world, you can compete drug-free. But if you are not quite as talented, you are faced with a stark choice — try to get away with taking the same performance enhancers or lose your chance to go to the Olympics.

Even worse, imagine you are a promising Russian athlete. The state informs you that you WILL take drugs. If you refuse, you are out (which probably also means no job in coaching or another sports-related career). If you report what you heard, your life could be in danger. It’s a lot to give up.

Only the International Olympic Committee (IOC) can deal with Russia, but how many of our other institutions put people in the same dilemmas? We pretend to condemn dishonest sales practices, but impose sales quotas that are almost impossible to meet ethically. We set standards for quality, but then budget hours for tasks that cannot be met without cutting corners. We tell engineers to meet both performance and emissions targets and refuse to accept the possibility that the technology is not capable of what is asked. We ask academic scientists to churn out papers at an ever-increasing rate and then are horrified when the results turn out to be made-up. If you don’t go along, you are competing on an uneven playing field.

Management consultants are fond of telling clients that “what you measure is what you get.” But how can we prevent people from interpreting “aspirational” goals as an invitation (or a directive) to cheat? What is the equivalent of drug testing in the academic and business worlds?

The institutional equivalent of a 12-year-old telling her parents that “everybody does it” is the excuse that “we have to do it because our competitors do it” — at least until things reach an Enron-sized crisis. We feel forced (or entitled?) to do the same, reassuring ourselves that we are not quite as bad as they are. If public companies resist the pressure, they are punished by the stock market. How much credence does a board of directors give a CEO whose excuse for not meeting targets is that the competition is winning by cheating?

Could companies in an industry form their own (more effective, more ethical) IOC? Not an industry lobby group (there are lots of those), but a group with teeth that could set standards for its members, audit their compliance and expose violations. Imagine a mining industry association exposing unsafe practices or the exploitation of workers in Third World countries. Or a banking industry association calling out a member for letting its key clients influence its research reports. Too bad it’s wishful thinking. In the meantime, ethical leaders, just like athletes, have to do their best and hope it’s good enough.