(First published on LinkedIn)
If you’re looking for a way to encourage employees to report wrongdoing, a column from The Ethicist in the New York Times offers a perfect anecdote.
In the column, a brother was troubled that he had never told his sister she was adopted. The parents had planned to do so when she was “old enough to understand.” Years passed. She’s now an adult, and all the years of secrecy meant that it is now near impossible to come clean.
The ancient Greek called this a “sorites” – which means “heap” – paradox. The idea is that one grain of sand doesn’t make a heap, nor do two grains, three, and so on. But at some point, adding a grain of sand at a time will result in a heap (aka a big mess.)
In the corporate world, when an employee finds out about a transgression, s/he may think that it doesn’t hurt to wait a day to report it. Then another day goes by, and another. There never seems to be the right time. Before you know it, too much time has passed and it becomes too hard to report the situation without sharing some blame for letting it go on for so long. In the meantime, the transgressor goes unpunished, leaving others to think that this type of behavior is OK. (The same idea applies to small infractions that add up and get bigger over time. We’ve all seen plenty of companies that have done exactly that, and had the situation blown up in their faces.)
So an important reminder for employees is that not only should they report wrongdoing, they have to do so immediately. Otherwise, they end up building a “heap” – when it’s too late to tell the truth without consequences, for the company and themselves.