Like many of you, I am following the unfolding Penn State situation and the university's handling of the matter. All of this got me thinking about investigations into alleged employee misconduct. Here are some thoughts on what to do.
1. Train managers who receive complaints of misconduct to actually listen to the employee’s concern. Too often a manager will argue with the employee. For example, "I have known Pete for 20 years and go to church with him. He would not sexually harrass anyone." The manager needs to declare a mental time-out: Do not dispute the information, but receive it. He should pass along what is learned up the chain of command, not handle it himself. And when I say what he learns, I mean facts, not conclusions; what was actually related, not what the listener translates on what was said.
2. Those up the chain, in deciding the appropriate response, need to engage in a technique called "propsective hindsight." This technique uses the power of a question, where the decision-makers ask themselves: "Let's pretend it is two years from now. Our decision to do XYZ comes to light. How will we respond to arguments that we should have done ABC instead?" The value of this approach is that it drains the discussion of emotion and avoids unfruitful confrontation because it focuses on the future.
3. Inculcate a culture that lives by this mantra: "Knowledge requires action. " Period.
4. A lawyer or counselor needs to look around the room of execs and say, "From this point forward we will be judged by what we do now." And if a poor decision results, and the world is looking at what was done, the same rule applies.
We all fall short, each and every one of us. What matters is our reaction. Harlan Coben wrote a column for Bloomberg titled "Coming Clean Is Only Play Left for Penn State" in which he says, "Do not circle the wagons. Do not worry about legal ramifications or liability or exposure. . . . You are a wonderful institution of learning with a rich academic tradition. . . . Please now remember the integrity with which you were established. You will be judged -- not only by what has already occured but also by what you choose to do about it now."