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Can You Prevent the Toxic Flavor of Public Discourse from Infecting Your Culture?

Do you think the the Presidents we most revere are repulsed by how we have dispatched decency standards from the public conversation?

I sure do.

Have I got your attention?

I debated using the image alongside, but I decided to include it so that you’re clear I’m not sugar-coating this subject. It’s probably not the first time you’ve seen this gesture. Probably not the last.

I did it because I want you to pay attention so you don’t let the vulgar and disrespectful standards of our public discourse bleed into your culture and damage everything you’ve worked so hard to achieve.

Setting high standards and strong values is a cornerstone of a successful company.

Why do I bring this up?

In large part because the now concluded impeachment trial of Donald Trump, juxtaposed with the rabble-rousers that find space in the news every day, confirms in vivid colors the anger that separates so many people and the abandonment of civility in our public discourse.

How Do You Prevent this Toxic Behavior from Infecting Your Culture?

We expect people to know the difference between right and wrong, don’t we … even though we also know that such a high standard makes it even more difficult to clearly spell out every single instance of that conduct.

We’re usually invoking the same sentiment when we say that something doesn’t pass the “smell test”. Likewise … the classic case of the “I’ll know it when I see it” observation.

The challenge is that we understand the spirit more than the letter of this code of conduct. Each of us sees these infractions through the prism of our own experiences and we each adhere to a different set of standards than someone else.

What do you do in situations where the conduct of an employee or colleague seems misguided or inappropriate even though there may be no specific written standard that prohibits it?

Conduct Unbecoming …

Throughout my service as a U.S. Army officer, this phrase was constantly invoked as the prism through which we were expected to live the examined life. Since so many behaviors could be interpreted as “conduct unbecoming”, it kept us focused on the highest standard we could achieve as officers.

The complete phrase is contained in Article 133 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ):

“Any commissioned officer, cadet, or midshipman who is convicted of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.”

You may have some difficulty in associating an officer of the Armed Forces with being a “gentleman” …maybe because members of the armed forces are seen as “warriors”. More often, we associate the term “gentleman” with someone in a three piece suit, with courtly manners and a snifter of cognac nearby.

It’s easy to understand how exhausting it is to try to define and legislate for every nuance of human behavior, particularly when it includes acts of both omission and commission.

While a phrase like “conduct unbecoming” is an useful placeholder for expected behavior, the challenge is to know what it means in a wide variety of settings.

How do you prevent the Toxic Behavior in our public discourse from infecting your culture? ~ Lary Kirchenbauer Click to Tweet

Insist on a Written Code of Conduct

The military struggles to define the term “conduct unbecoming”, but at least makes an attempt in the UCMJ, where it refers to

“action or behavior in an official capacity which, in dishonoring or disgracing the person as an officer, seriously compromises the officer’s character as a gentleman ….”

It’s Not Perfect But You CAN Set High Standards

The UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice) goes on to identify certain moral attributes common to the ideal officer and the perfect gentleman …

“a lack of which is indicated by acts of dishonesty, unfair dealing, indecency, indecorum, lawlessness, injustice or cruelty.”

Some of these attributes are obvious … knowingly making a false statement, cheating on an exam or being drunk and disorderly in a public place.

Committing or attempting to commit a crime involving moral turpitude” invokes another phrase that is a close cousin of “conduct unbecoming.

What is Moral Turpitude?

The phrase “moral turpitude” involves crimes with an inherent quality …

of baseless, vileness or depravity with respect to the person’s duty to another or to society in general”.

The phrase itself has many definitions, but it reflects an attempt to define the vague notion of conduct which is contrary to accepted behavior or is grossly misdirected. It is also considered to be conduct contrary to community standards of justice, honesty or good morals.

There are other more general acts that violate this code including …

  • the “dishonorable failure to pay a debt”, or
  • the “opening and reading a letter of another without authority”, or
  • using insulting or defamatory language to another officer in that officer’s presence or about that officer to other military persons” is considered a violation of this article.

We don’t need to spend much time on the obvious elements of lying, cheating or stealing.

It  also means that who you’re keeping company with really matters.

Being responsible in your personal affairs … really matters.

Setting High Standards Strengthens Your Company

Is it too much work to set high standards?

Do you think it’s too restrictive to establish a set of values of which you can be proud?

You’re wrong if you’re thinking that way.

Setting high standards sends a message that you DO stand for something … that there is value in building a workplace with respect for each other and with guardrails that describe unacceptable behavior.

If you’re a company founded upon a set of clear values, make sure you develop a Code of Conduct so everyone understands what’s expected and what you consider the boundaries of civil behavior.

A set of values isn’t much more than a slogan unless it’s supported by the actions, conduct and behaviors of those who embrace them.

Start now. It’s never too late.

Question: Do You Have a Written Code of Conduct in your organization? If not, why not? Please leave your comments below.

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