Shady cheating scandals present unexpected leadership challenges

As far as fish stories go, this one is a whopper.

Two Ohio fishermen were recently charged with the felony of attempted grand larceny for their failed attempt to earn a Lake Erie Fishing Tournament. The allegation? That they stuffed the “winning walleyes” with sinkers and fillets of other fish. The pair lost over $28,000 in price. It doesn’t seem to have been a unique thing for these guys; media reports suggest the pair may have tried the same bet in a separate tournament last spring.

On its own, that would probably amount to nothing more than a late-night comic book joke or the subject of office water cooler gossip. But let’s put it in context with other recent, equally eccentric developments. Collectively, they raise a warning signal to organizational leaders that connivance and deception can come from the most unexpected places.

Take for example, the recent scandal engulfing the popular world of professional poker, where a well-known and successful high-stakes player accused an opponent of cheating in a $269,000 win against him. This effort would have involved the opponent, other players, and at least one member of the production team broadcasting the match.

The theme of wildlife reappears with the news that Popular Katmai National Park Contest in Alaska to select their favorite bear (colloquially known as Fat Bear Week) has been outraged by apparent ballot-stuffing efforts to influence the semi-finals of the contest.

And particularly noteworthy is the report of an investigation that the American chess grandmaster “probably received illegal assistance in more than 100 online games” in which cash prizes were available. The grandmaster apparently confessed to the allegations in the report and was penalized for his actions. Yet, according to the report, broader concerns about the extent of the grandmaster’s cheating remain.

What is the leadership to do with this? Dismiss it all as a bunch of nickel-and-dime drama made newsworthy solely by the curious nature of the allegations? Or is something really fishy going on? The concern of leadership is twofold.

The first is the possibility that these eccentric scandals reflect a change in attitude within the organization’s workforce. In our divided society, is cheating, even in its most basic form, becoming more accepted?

Now, a collection of quirky media stories hardly represents scientific cultural sampling. Still, it may be useful to take a closer look at the (human) participants in these events. This is not necessarily the select group of business leaders that compliance initiatives typically seek to influence. Rather, they represent a range of backgrounds, from sportsmen to card players to chess champions.

One of the main lessons of leadership is that deception and dishonesty can come from unexpected actors. The C-Suite and the meeting room are not the exclusive sources of embezzlement and misconduct. These new scandals are colorful but stark reminders that doing the right thing may not always be instinctive at all levels of the corporate hierarchy.

Second, if these scandals are something of a cultural yellow flag, leaders may want to modify their message of compliance accordingly. Most organizational ethics programs rely heavily on comprehensive education, training, and monitoring efforts. But ask yourself if such efforts are enough to reach and motivate those who are prone to cheat at a fishing tournament, a park animal popularity contest, a poker game or a game of chess.

This is a risk that leaders will not want to ignore. Those who are likely to stuff a walleye on the weekend may be just as likely to behave dishonestly at work. To combat this, a two-pronged response might be in order.

The first component would be a lower organizational tolerance for penny ante violations of organizational policies and procedures. Small ethical breaches are often dealt with with simple warnings or compensatory sanctions. Yet leaving the underlying behavior uncorrected could theoretically lead to more serious issues with the employee down the road. A more forceful approach to minor violations can help individuals change their behavior.

The second prong would be to engage the workforce community as part of the solution, through more accessible hotlines and whistleblowers, better protections for anonymous reporting, and increased financial incentives for workforce units that meet ethics and compliance goals.

It is certainly overkill to leverage a series of tabloid-worthy scandals for a major change in the organizational approach to ethics. But there is also a risk in ignoring possible trends that are, at best, ethically dubious. Could it be that cheating is becoming more and more prevalent? That dishonesty is increasingly rewarded? That integrity is being devalued?

The answer may not lie in a trick fishing tournament. But just in case, leaders can think about changing their choice of bait to ensure the most ethical catch.

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