Imagine that you are a police officer. You are out on patrol and spot a very suspicious vehicle. Among other things, it is stopping at known drug locations. You pull the vehicle over, and when the driver and passenger will not display valid identification, you ask them to get out, and you search the vehicle. Two weapons are found. The two are placed under arrest. You pop the trunk to continue the search while your partner is putting the two in the police cruiser. There in the trunk, loosely strewn about, are many thousands of dollars in cash, obviously drug money. Nobody can know how much, and nobody would ever know if you stuffed your pockets with a few thousand. And what harm would be done? You are tempted. You live in a world of temptation.
Years ago, a group did management training with V.I. human services agencies. It did a very popular “values clarification” exercise called “The Parable.” It went like this:
A young married woman’s husband worked at night. She was having an affair with another man who lived across town. She would leave her home to go to the man’s place at night and then return before her husband got home from work. To get there, she had to cross a dangerous bridge, known as a location where muggings occurred. One night, on her way home, she was accosted by the muggers. She resisted and was killed.
Here was the assignment given to the managers in training: in order of importance, who was most responsible for the young woman’s death?
The responses were often surprising, including blaming the husband. The rationale: if he had kept her satisfied, she would not have been out roaming the streets. Many others blamed the woman, a case of just desserts for her evil and unfaithful ways. What was most surprising was how many people did not hold the muggers completely responsible. After all, she had simply been crossing a bridge, and they did not know that she had been coming from an illicit encounter.
The Virgin Islands has recently had two major embezzlement scandals and, over a longer period, a series of smaller ones. Without making judgments about any of these cases, there has been widespread anger and condemnation of these events and of those who committed them.
Regardless of our opinion of those accused and what they may or may not have done, it is worth constructing a “parable” around these cases. The police officer looking at the trunk full of money is facing an unavoidable temptation. This is almost certainly not true of those people accused in the most recent cases. In the case of a hospital or other large system, it is the responsibility of the top leaders, the Board of Directors and outside auditors to create an environment that is as temptation free as possible. These temptations and opportunities for corruption were largely avoidable.
It is no accident that we see so many financial scandals in religious organizations. People often make the false assumption that doing God’s work will make people more resistant to temptation, and, therefore, we don’t need the safeguards that are essential in other organizations. And once someone has gotten away with something, the temptation increases and the corruption becomes an addiction.
As in the parable, aside from the perpetrators, others contribute to making the bad deed possible. It is the responsibility of those at the top to put in place systems, processes and an organizational culture that come as close to eliminating temptation as possible.
We have enough experience to know how to develop solid financial systems that protect everyone and largely eliminate temptation. It is also critical to recruit moral and ethical leaders, and to perform deep background checks on those who will define the values that drive the organization. Whatever the leader does, from using the organization’s postage stamps for personal mail to big-ticket items, everyone notices. This person sets the standard for what is and is not acceptable. The leader defines the culture.
The Virgin Islands does not do a very good job on any of these fronts, and it pays a real price for this failure. Sending people to jail is justice, but it is also an admission of failure and a form of closing the barn door after the horse has escaped. By not having these protections in place, it has created a world of avoidable temptation, one that may have led someone down a wrong path that they would not otherwise have taken.
None of this should be considered a justification for wrongdoing, or of a “the devil made me do it” or “the dog ate my homework” defense. It is an argument for eliminating what Catholics used to call the “occasions of sin.” Leaders are responsible for eliminating as many of these “occasions” as is humanly possible.
The primary ingredients of a temptation-less environment are solid systems, detailed background checks on leaders and top managers, and auditors and governing boards that maintain a distance from those that they are overseeing.
None of it is very glamorous, but these are the ingredients of a better and less dishonest work world.