Second Chances

At a recent C-Suite forum I was asked whether I believed that employees should be given second chances when it comes to ethical issues.  I like this type of question because it challenges organizations to think more deeply about the issue.  Of course, the simple – or perhaps the lazy – answer would be ‘yes, there is no room for ethical misconduct’ but beware – there is a trap here.

Whenever we say that ‘there are no second chances’ we are really saying that certain actions are intolerable in our organization and anyone found on the wrong side of these will be summarily dismissed.  Without question.  This may be a popular choice and I’ve seen organizations publish lists of these ‘intolerables’ in their Codes of Conduct, perhaps to show the world how strong they are when it comes to promoting ethical behavior.  That’s all well and good.  After all, it is only right and fair that we are forthright about these things if we intend to act – there’s no use in being vague about it.

But before you add another item to your list of intolerables, ask yourself whether you are really ready to live by this.  Consider, for example, the case of Tony Blevins, a senior procurement executive fired from Apple after being hijacked one Saturday morning by a stranger with a phone who invited Blevins to comment on his apparently lavish lifestyle.  In an episode lasting less than a minute Blevins fires off a quote from a 40-year old comedy in which an entitled, drunk and lazy character demeans women.  Whatever brought this particular quote to his mind, it appears that he believed in the moment this was a truly witty response and Blevins seems to have forgotten that he no longer lives in the 1980s.  Blevins quickly found himself on the wrong end of an internal investigation for gender-insensitive language and was fired within days.  Apple has not commented on its reasons for swiftly firing Blevins, but Apple’s Commitment to Human Rights policy includes the following intolerable:  “At Apple and throughout our supply chain, we prohibit harassment, discrimination, violence, and retaliation of any kind—and we have zero tolerance for violations motivated by any form of prejudice or bigotry.” It appears this intolerable was being applied by Apple, perhaps extending its policy beyond the Company and its supply chain.

No matter what any of us think about the mindset Blevins betrayed in this moment, the outcome was that Apple decided it could immediately dispense with the services of a 20+ year senior executive, reportedly highly critical to Apple’s supply chain management.   This is exactly what you have to be willing to do when you use intolerables.  Context of the offense, past behavior, seniority of the individual, criticality to the business’ success, willingness to put things right simply do not matter.   So, in this sense, Apple had the courage of its convictions.

You also have to be willing to forego opportunity to improve.  This is where second chances play their part. Improvement only happens when individuals within the organization are motivated to change.  Like a repentant carrying the flag for some standard. If he or she is powerful in the organization, they will be particularly useful agents of change.  I’ve seen this used to good effect when senior people are willing to discuss mistakes and what they learned from them.

So, I’m not against intolerables but I am against using these without thinking about what they’re for and making sure you’re not throwing away reasonable opportunities to change.  I’ve seen intolerables used effectively when driving a change in the organization, and at these times, the organization might intentionally become more intolerant.  And intolerables certainly should exist for whatever behaviors your organization believes are absolutely critical to its purpose.  But if they are to be used to good effect, and not to create fear or confusion or the possibility for inconsistency, you must think about what will be required when you come across situations that call for them and be comfortable with the outcome.

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