How Will You Prevent The Toxic Flavor of Public Discourse From Infecting Your Culture?

We have successfully dispatched decency standards from the public conversation.

H ow will you stay on the high road in your organization while the public discourse has reached a new low.

The Image is Jarring, Isn’t It?

I debated using the image you see above, but I decided to include it so that you’re clear I’m not sugar-coating this subject.

I want you to pay attention and make sure this doesn’t reflect the culture you’re building.

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

I want you to be “looking” 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.

What is “Conduct Unbecoming”?

Conduct unbecoming ….

Throughout my service as a US 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.”

By definition, it includes acts of both omission and commission.

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” while the term “gentleman” is often associated with someone in a three piece suit, with courtly manners and a snifter of cognac nearby.

Why do I bring this up?

In large part because last week’s Inauguration of Donald Trump, juxtaposed with the Women’s March the following day, confirmed in vivid colors, the anger that separates so many people and their interest groups as we’ve abandoned a lack of civility in our public discourse.

More than ever, it’s apparently ok to say anything … do anything … at any time and anywhere. There are few restrictions on what the media will show … often repeatedly in background pieces that go on for weeks … and there are few things that people won’t say in public, whether out of their mouths or written on their signs.

Our Political Divide is Greater Than Ever

[pullquote]Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest. ~Mark Twain[/pullquote]

Political signs, including countless ones during the Women’s March, used rude, crude and profane language to make their point. In this specific instance, I’m sure you’re going to remind me that President Trump has used equally vulgar language, notably in an unguarded moment caught on tape that has run endlessly in the media as recently as this week.

Correct on both counts … which proves what?

That we’re all capable of being rude and vulgar?

That we all can say anything to get our points across in any mix of people and anywhere?

In an age where an offhand remark intended as a compliment … or an uninvited approach … or even a look the wrong way is grounds for a harassment claim in the workplace, a public space is a wide open cesspool of profane remarks and vulgar placards. The defense? They did it, too.

What ever happened to the high road?

A Pew Research Center poll released last Thursday showed that 86 percent of Americans believed the country was more politically divided than it had been in the past, sharply higher than the 46 percent who held that view eight years ago, just before former President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

What became of Mom’s counsel:

“sticks and stones will break your bones but words will never hurt you?”

Instead of developing a thick skin, every one seems to have grown a thin skin. Instead of getting on the high road, people are happy to get down in the gutter with whomever casts a stone.

How Do You Block the Doors so this Toxic Behavior Doesn’t Infect Your Culture?

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?

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 often invoking the same sentiment when we say that something doesn’t pass the “smell test”, similar to the classic case of the “I’ll know it when I see it” condition.

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.

How Do You Define Acceptable Behavior?

It’s easy to understand how exhausting it is to try to define and legislate for every nuance of human behavior.

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

Have You Created a Written Code of Conduct?

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

It 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. But also it means that who you’re keeping company with really matters. Being responsible in your personal affairs…really matters.

Setting High Standards Strengthens Your Company

Today, it may seem like setting high standards is too much work … or maybe 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 guard rails that describe unacceptable behavior.

If you’re a company founded upon a set of clear values, make sure you develop a Code of Conduct to 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? You can easily add your comment below, or by visiting our Facebook Page or @Exkalibur on Twitter. I visit them every day and look forward to discussing these ideas and concepts with you.

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