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Revisiting Penn State: You Call (or text or email or see) Me

Jerry Sandusky has been sentenced for acts of sexual abuse committed against young boys at Penn State. Likely, he’ll spend the rest of his life behind bars.
How could this have happened, and how could so many signs have been ignored?
This is not just a Penn State problem though the case stands out in light of the awful conduct.  Somehow, the most basic messages many of us learn as children are not being effectively communicated in many of our workplaces. We need to change that. How we get our most important lessons growing up needs to be brought to our jobs.
Haven’t you heard or said something like this?
Look, I don’t care what happens; you call me if there’s a problem. It doesn’t matter what time it is, where you are, who you’re with, or what’s going on. If there’s a hint of trouble, if something doesn’t seem right, I’m here. You call me. If you can’t get home, I’ll get you. But you call me. Got it? 
Parents can remember saying that to their children and kids remember those voices long after they’re adults. When you say it, what you hope is that your son or daughter will call you before something bad happens.
While we remind our children about the rules – don’t drink and drive, don’t steal or lie, don’t do this or that — we can’t think of every way they can go wrong.  We cover the most obvious dangers, we remind them of their values – who they are and what’s expected.  We tell them not to get into bad situations. But if something happens, you call.  We repeat that message over and over hoping it will stick.   If problems arise, we’re here.
Even after laying out the rules, we worry that if something bad is happening they won’t speak up or leave. Maybe they’ll not want to buck the crowd, be dropped from them their group or find themselves the butt of jokes that just won’t stop.  Peer pressure and the desire to conform are powerful drivers.
We grow up and go to work. We’re adults not children.  In business, there are different traps and dangers. But what remains the same is this – we can’t tell our team members about every rule they can violate, every regulation they have to know and every standard they must commit to memory. There are just too many.  Add in scores of exceptions and frequent rule changes.  Communicate them all and few will be taken seriously, remembered and applied.
Even in the face of outrageous, criminal action, as with the Penn State tragedy, the risk remains that blatant problems will be ignored due to the boss’s power or the sense that the complainant, not the offender, will be the one who ends up being harmed by raising alarms.
The more efficient approach to changing behavior in the workplace is the same with which we grew up. Lay out the basics – here are things you never do. Remember who you are and what our organization stands for – we live by our values; learn them, work by them. Bring your issues to us, don’t ignore them. We’ll protect you when you do.
Here’s the kind of message that leaders need to repeat over and over. Once a year is not enough.
There will be times when you sense something may not be on target or may be a problem. You might be right; you might be wrong.  You might think your boss won’t want to hear your concerns, or that if she’s the problem, she’s too powerful to cross by complaining.  Or you might think our values are just lip service.  They’re not.  We mean to work by them.  Always.  Problems will arise. You call me, or text me, email me or write me — or someone else. But let us know.   No one will harm you for doing that.
Just as we grow up with consciences driven by knowing the basics and hearing frequently repeated messages, we need to make sure that our workplace values, messages and commitments are just as clear and convincingly expressed, repeated and followed.

Want to hear more? Attend our upcoming ELI webcast, “Are We Penn State? Building a Self-Correcting Culture – An Update” on October 24, 2012, 11 AM-12 PM Eastern Time.  Find our more details and register HERE now!

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