Checks and Balances to Prevent Bad Behavior

The news is filled with instances of offensive and unacceptable behavior in the work place. It’s happening in all types of organizations, both business and nonprofit. In hindsight, it’s pretty easy to see the bad behavior pattern. We wonder how these instances could occur unchecked, sometimes going on for years.


After the news story breaks and more details come out, we learn that the bad behavior was tolerated from a powerful individual to keep the revenue streaming in or because the victims did not have an independent person to turn to for help. Often, the offensive and unacceptable behavior was enabled and/or explained away by other individuals in the organization who stood to lose money and/or position by speaking up.


What’s missing from every instance of work place behavior “gone wrong” are the checks and balances needed to identify and address problems. We usually think of checks and balances as applying to finances – reconciling bank accounts and segregating financial transaction tasks to prevent one person from having too much control. But the analogy definitely applies. Unchecked control and bad behavior can result in lawsuits and reputational damage, as we have seen.


Examples of bad behavior in the news are often extreme and not typical of most work places. Three checks and balances below, when implemented in a typical organization, promote an ethical culture where bad behavior will not be tolerated.


  1. “Tone at the Top” – Organizations must make it clear that bad behavior will not be tolerated. Clear and convincing policies should convey the organization’s values and expected behaviors. Leadership must also set an example through its actions.


  1. Confidential Reporting- No matter what leadership does to promote an ethical culture, some individuals will still engage in unethical, or even illegal, activities. Establish a confidential tip line or other mechanism for independently reporting real or suspected fraudulent behavior or ethical violations without fear of retaliation.


  1. Take Clear Action – Set up an independent mechanism to follow-up on confidential reports of bad behavior. Act on the results consistently. Remember that lost revenue when an unethical person is separated from your organization pales in comparison to lost revenue and costs associated with lawsuits and tarnished reputation.


Checks and balances alone do not guarantee that bad behavior will be stamped out. However, they can go a long way to establishing an ethical culture where bad behavior is just not acceptable.