Football’s back on TV and football-related controversies are back in the news. No, this isn’t another article about a certain ad campaign. Today, we’re talking about college football coach Urban Meyer.
In case you haven’t heard, Ohio State University recently suspended Meyer for 3 games without pay. The reason? You guessed it: Meyer looked the other way on employee misconduct. The renowned Buckeyes coach had apparently known of sexual assault allegations against assistant coach Zach Smith for years. And it was only after those reports resurfaced in August that Meyer decided to fire Smith.
This is nowhere near the first case of its kind in college football.
Of course; one can’t help but think of Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky. But neither are such cover-ups exclusive to the sport (consider the horrendous experiences of USA Gymnastics and Swimming athletes) or the world of sports in general. From Hollywood to the Catholic Church to Tinder, people in positions of power seem to regularly conceal abuse allegations against their employees and themselves.
Why do leaders go against their own values to protect bad actors in their organizations, especially when cover-ups almost always fall apart?
- abandon your principles and
- go through the trouble?
In a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, organizational psychologist David M. Mayer explains why so many “organizations, leaders, and individuals fall victim to moral biases—rationalizations for behaving unethically usually due to one’s self-interest.” Reasons he offers include prioritizing performance over principles, lying through omission, blind loyalty, and simple hypocrisy: some people want to look moral without having to do the work of behaving like a decent person.
One particularly interesting point is the idea of “unspoken values.”
Mayer (not Meyer) writes:
“Another factor that can increase the likelihood of making unethical decisions is the absence of language around values. Classic research in organizations has found that leaders tend to be reluctant to use ‘moral language.’ For example, leaders are more likely to talk about deadlines, objectives, and effectiveness than values such as integrity, respect, and compassion. Over time, this can license unethical conduct.
Similarly, leaders and employees tend to use euphemistic language to describe unethical actions in sanitized terms. This can make people less aware that certain decisions are unethical, or lead them to feel less guilty about the consequences, potentially leading to further misbehavior.”
Sounds a lot like tone at the top to me. In fact, the whole article, which ends with several tangible suggestions for addressing unethical behavior, casts many of the topics we’ve covered here on the blog through the lens of psychology. It’s the kind of perspective that really illuminates the value of what compliance professionals do.