Take a Moment for Janitors

Screen shot 2012 07 12 at 10.39.39 AM 300x247 Take a Moment for JanitorsLouis J. Freeh, former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, today publicized a report on Penn State University’s internal investigation of the sexual abuse charges against former assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky.

Freeh’s report talks about how the senior leaders at Penn State refused to report known sexual abuse and, by extension, to protect the children who Sandusky victimized. But, from an HR perspective, one of the most telling portions of the report is a section that talks about a janitor witnessing an inappropriate sexual act, but not reporting it to Penn State or to authorities for fear of being fired.

A powerful quote from Freeh:

Take a moment for janitors . . . the employees of Penn State who clean and maintain the locker rooms where young boys are being [victimized]. They witness what I think is most horrific [crime] being described, and they panic . . . but they say ‘we can’t report this because we’ll get fired.’ . . . If that’s the culture on the bottom, God help the culture on the top.

A study discussed last year in The Economist said that 43 percent of workers would characterize their company’s culture as leadership by coercion, or “blind obedience.” Nearly half of the workers in this type of top-down, command-and-control culture said they had observed unethical behavior at work in the previous year; yet only a quarter of them said they were likely to blow the whistle. The janitors in today’s report from Penn State clearly fit into this category.

Peter Bregman, a strategic advisor to CEOs and their leadership teams, wrote a really interesting blog post a few years ago about stories as the best way for employers to change their corporate culture. He advised companies to:

  1. Do dramatic story-worthy things that represent the culture they want to create. Then let other people tell stories about it.
  2. Find other people who do story-worthy things that represent the culture they want to create. Then tell stories about them.

Penn State has a long way to go in changing the narrative that today’s report – and the past decade of scandal – has created for them. But, their culture can overcome the negative publicity if they start making decisions that more closely mirror who they want their organization to become. From the top, down . . . and vice versa.

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