Failure of Ethical Leadership – A Personal Saga

By Mary T. O’Sullivan

A local, Fortune 100 company has undergone some dramatic leadership changes recently, most of them for the worse, especially when viewed through the prism of ethical behavior. Among other issues, this includes poor treatment of women, which has gone from marginal to outright sexist. At least four women I know have been pushed out of their jobs or left the company due to poor treatment by their leaders.

Other ethical “messes” entail the behavior of the wife of a former Vice President; her access to and use of company assets and facilities, and the hiring of a secretary to take care of her needs; also, well out of the scope of company ethics policies. The Vice President himself was drummed out of the Navy for his own ethical violations, having an affair with a subordinate.

Furthermore, another retired admiral has run over even more people, and specifically women, while attempting to cover his tracks when the situation becomes heated. In addition, many managers seem to lack basic personal ethical codes of behavior and close their eyes or openly participate in shady reports and supplier ratings.

Unfortunately, I was personally involved in one of these ethical messes starting in mid-2008 and culminating in early 2009. All of the above elements were factors in the situation. A bad boss decided to find a way to move me out of my position of eight years. Ironically, the previous year, 2007, I had been promoted and had received a rating of “exceeds”. He used the disgruntlement of one of the retired admirals, and HR to try to push me out of the department, even the company. I resisted these efforts, and almost received a letter of reprimand. My department VP didn’t back me, although I had done much to help him over the years (no loyalty there). I resorted to leveraging my relationships with my former boss, now also a VP, and the president of the business unit himself in order to have the letter of reprimand withdrawn, and find a rotational assignment removed from that toxic environment.

Eventually, due to several other circumstances, the opportunity presented itself for me to keep the job, however, after such poor treatment, I welcomed the chance to try something new. Ironically, the two women who were offered my job as replacements both demurred stating that they felt they were not qualified. To this day, the job is not filled, and I often receive feedback about what a mistake management made in removing me from that position.

Additionally, personal issues with a disgruntled admin are also an interesting addendum to this study. I had to fire an admin due to poor conduct, as I maintained that her behavior, both on the job and in her off hours, was not representative of the company’s values and behaviors. She proceeded to denounce me to HR and to my bad boss, who in turn rehired her in a different location. When a coworker and I feared she would return to our location, after a fruitless discussion with my department VP, we reported her behavior to security; within two weeks, her laptop was confiscated, and she was walked out of the company. Egg on faces all the way around!

Fast forward one year, and temporary employment agencies begin to call former coworkers looking for references. One of these coworkers alerted me and provided me with the agency’s number – and I called them. My conversation with the agency is worthy of an ethical discussion as well.

Additionally, a valuable corollary discussion is the tendency of our (now former) company president to hire people with questionable ethics. While he looks for qualities of aggressiveness and a domineering style, he seems to ignore the fact that most of these hires do not share his value system when it comes to valuing people. Sadly, this company president was (June 23, 2010) escorted out of the building by security, and his computer and complete contents of his office were confiscated by corporate.

This is the backdrop to this paper. Questions of an “unethical culture”, “hypocritical leadership”, “coercive power” and “Machiavellian manipulation” all support the occurrence of the ethical issue discussed here.

Although a company may have behavioral standards for ethical conduct, without a basis in morality, an unethical or amoral person cannot be an ethical leader. In addition, the company provides every employee with badge cards clearly stating the company values and describing the behaviors expected as an employee. The company also provides annual live ethics training, as well as monthly “Ethics Space” videos, depicting how to ethically handle questionable situations.

The case of pushing me out of my job had multifaceted ethical concerns. The first concern was treatment of employees, or in terms of the company’s values, “people”. I was a successful employee, who ran afoul of a senior director, a former admiral. The admiral obviously was accustomed to summarily dismissing people who didn’t agree with him. Although I had a good reputation and good performance, this admiral used his position of authority to try to remove me. Other concerns were his lack of integrity and the lack of integrity of my management chain and HR in their willingness to coalesce against me, withdrawing all support.  Additionally, the company values clearly state on badge cards – “Welcome diversity and diverse opinions” – as a company value. Removing a person who disagrees with management is not reflective of a diverse culture. These ethical challenges clearly violated the “fairness theory”, where an “ethical action treats everyone equally, without showing favoritism or discrimination against anyone”. (Shriberg, 2005)

Legal obligation?  The question of legal obligation in this case is very interesting. Since my performance had been unimpeachable to that point, the situation became very tricky for HR and my management chain. I repeatedly asked if a “Performance Improvement Plan” or PIP, was in place, and HR emphasized a number of times that there was no PIP in my future. The letter of reprimand was threatened when my boss continuously called me several times a day to discuss my “rotation”, and asking me what my plans for moving were. I perceived this pressure as harassment, and found it extremely stressful. I received advice from a mentor to email my boss, and that I didn’t have to speak to him on the phone. Evidently, this was considered insubordination, and a letter of reprimand was written. Two coworkers close to my department VP as well as myself, called to warn me of the letter. I informed my mentor who told me to let him know if it actually came. I decided to make the phone call, and the letter was rescinded, never delivered. I didn’t realize that simply ignoring harassing phone calls could lead to a charge of “insubordination”, but with no HR support, I was left vulnerable. When viewed in light of Shriberg’s “Executive Ethical Leader Reputation Matrix”, “As a moral person, the executive models personal traits such as integrity, honesty, and trustworthiness…” the ethical failures on the part of management and HR to behave ethically become obvious. (Shriberg, 2005) The Company value of integrity (“Be honest, forthright and trustworthy”) seems to have been also violated. Since there was no legal case against me, the “insubordination” charge had to be manufactured, again as a method of intimidation and coercion. As stated in Shriberg, “Coercive power is the ability to force someone to comply through threat of …psychological or emotional consequences.” (Shriberg, 2005) As defined by DuBrin in Shriberg, from his list of “dishonest and unethical tactics…coercion via threats, criticism, excessive demands…” is a misuse of power and a low form of manipulation. (Shriberg, 2005) This coercion drove me to request a meeting with the company president who expressed his support for me and disappointment in the behaviors by “leaders”. In addition, realizing the situation was becoming increasingly controversial, the admiral with whom I disagreed attempted to distance himself from the chaos, and awarded me a $500 Achievement Award for my work in support of his project. This award further muddled the case, as any employee receiving an award of that nature is exempt from punitive action by a supervisor. This put me in more of a negotiating position, as I presented the award to my department VP as evidence of my performance. Not only was the award from the admiral who complained about me, but it was signed by his VP who sent the initial email claiming I was unsuited for the job. I could see the mask of confusion on my VP’s face, as he mildly congratulated me for my efforts.

Fairness? Both my manager and HR misused their power and authority, believing that the end justified the means. They lacked the necessary leadership behaviors of “showing concern for people and treating them with dignity and respect”.  (Shriberg, 2005) Their decisions were not based on “values, fairness, and concern for [others]”.  The lack of leadership was based on “ethical pretense”, and puts them squarely in the category of “hypocritical leadership”. These people wear their Compan values badge cards, but engage in “unethical conduct…” In addition they failed in their supervisory roles, as those responsible for others; “A supervisor who is an ethical leader is concerned first and foremost about the well-being of his or her people, developing, and supporting them in difficult situations.” (Shriberg, 2005)

Promise Keeping?  Regarding the company value of commitment, the Compan badge card states:  “Honor commitments to customers, shareholders, community and each other. Accept personal responsibility to meet commitments; be accountable.” In other words, if you make a commitment, keep it. Again, the supervisor’s commitment to employees as manifested in exhibiting “visible behaviors,” “doing the right thing, showing concern…” was painfully absent in this situation. (Shriberg, 2005) Regarding the company value of integrity “Be honest, forthright and trustworthy. Use straight talk no hidden agendas. Respect ethics, law and regulation.”  Using the badge card as a guide, employees should be entitled to a standard of ethical treatment, and wearing the badge card can be seen as an implicit promise from the company that everyone is to live by those standards and treated accordingly. Moreover, the number one value on the Company badge card is “People”, as described above. The blatant disregard for me personally, the lack of supervisory commitment, and the complete absence of integrity on the part of my supervisor, HR and the former admiral, demonstrate a sad amoral, unethical and hypocritical ethics situation. As said in Shriberg, “executives…must focus on the leadership part of the term ethical leadership, by making ethics and values an important part of their leadership agenda…” (Shriberg, 2005)  W. D. Ross argues that promise keeping is a duty and argues that there are seven “right making features of moral action”, with “duty of promise-keeping: A duty to act according to explicit and implicit promises, including the implicit promise to tell the truth” being one. The lack of moral behavior by the three people in power in this situation seems to be based on simple disregard for individual core values, basic right conduct versus wrong actions. Promise keeping based on company values, implicit or otherwise, seems to have become a victim of another agenda.

Honesty? The Ninth Commandment says, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” (The Ten Commandments, 2010) The first trait on the first pillar of the “Executive Ethical Leader Reputation Matrix” is honesty. (Shriberg, 2005)“Be honest, forthright, and trustworthy” is the first behavior listed on the badge card under the “Integrity” value.  From the very first list of moral guidelines – The Ten Commandments – to modern leadership theory, to the Company badge card, honesty is a value that is expected in human conduct. Honesty could have prevented the chaotic mess of trying to push me out of my job. The unhappy admiral never confronted me directly about his concerns, he worked behind my back. In fact, there is a strong suspicion that he took details about my performance from a detractor of mine, and didn’t do his own research. My supervisor and VP never told me why the actions were being taken against me, only that “senior leadership” at my job site didn’t think I had a “winning attitude”. The HR person wouldn’t listen to those who supported me, and ignored their comments and concerns. The discontented admin told tall tales to hurt my reputation and to convince supervisors to hire her back in a different location. As stated in the introduction, she paid a dear consequence for her deceitfulness. Every manager and supervisor involved with her case faced embarrassing circumstances when explaining why she had been given her job back. If all players had only been honest with me and themselves, and let go of their hidden agendas, the entire problem could have been avoided. Instead, selfishness, slander, pride, wrath and greed reigned over people’s better judgment, and much harm and pain resulted.

Doing good? There was much good that came out of this disaster, although with the players involved, it may seem hard to believe. For one, I now have a job with a wonderful boss, and a great team of people to work with. The job is far less stressful than my previous work, and my expertise is appreciated, not considered negative. This experience also brought me a little closer to our now former company president, who took a personal interest in my success, and has been very supportive of my graduate studies and career goals. In addition, the fact that my judgment call with the admin is now vindicated is a positive point for the company. She was not an appropriate choice to be a Company employee, even as a contractor. I spoke to her employment agency who was looking for references and gave them the straight story. In summary, I wouldn’t want to be responsible for her not being able to work, but she is not to be trusted with company computers or access-controlled areas. Moreover, other professional opportunities have opened up to me, which I would have otherwise not been exposed to.

Avoiding harm? Harm was not avoided in this situation. First, the area I once controlled has no leader. The processes, policies, and procedures I put in place have no one to teach, train or enforce them. There is an element of chaos in the area, with a combination of outside contractors, inexperienced people, and a small core group of workers left behind. Much material is unaccounted for,  space allocations are disorderly, access controlled areas have been made open, etc. The job has been posted (at a higher level), but no qualified people have bid on it. Three men, one a director, one a senior manager, and one lower level manager have been involved with running the area since I left. That’s three men attempting and failing to accomplish what one woman did singlehandedly. The work load on the workers left in the area has quadrupled, and hours have increased dramatically. As stated in an earlier paragraph, I often receive comments regarding how much I am missed by IT, facilities and others needing to work in the area. I usually just smile and try not to gloat as I say, “Well, that was the business decision management made.”

Why is this bothering me? The situation still bothers me somewhat because I see the chaos and disorder that was left behind. No plan was put in place to have adequate coverage once I left. Management and HR tried to force fit people into the job who did not want it and did not feel they could perform at the level that I had. Consultants have been hired at a rate of $3000 per day plus expenses to replace only part of the work I accomplished in the eight years I had the job.

Clear duties? What management now realizes is that clear duties in the area in which I worked were inadequately defined. There was a mismatch between the way I interpreted my job and the way the former admiral perceived my contributions. In other companies, professionals in my discipline also contribute content and strategy to the overall effort, not limit themselves to ordering food, making sure people had room access and paper supplies. My male counterpart, in a Massachusetts location ,was limited in his talents, and lacked the broad background  in the field that I had accumulated over many years. Until management acknowledges the need for highly trained professionals, the business will continue to founder, flounder and fail in my specialized area.

Competing claims? With the passage of two years, competing claims have died down considerably. The former admiral always takes time to smile and say hello, much to my chagrin. My former department VP practically knocks me over with a friendly smile and handshake and “How are you?”, also much to my chagrin. It’s so obvious they not only underestimated my contacts, but that they were caught in the lies of the former admin as well as the former detractor (the originator of the nasty emails). My former supervisor was forced out of the department himself, due in part to his bad behavior, as well as the fact that he was responsible for rehiring the admin whom I had fired and was found  to be unsuited for work with the company by security. Additionally, a new supervisor was hired in my department, ironically, from the same company where I came from and was very surprised to learn that I was no longer in his department. In addition, prior to my formal rotation, he asked me if I was sure of my decision to leave, as he was familiar with my work.

Who else matters? Without the existence of an unethical culture, the treatment I received; the lying, and deceitfulness, greediness, the lack of concern for a single employee, etc; could not exist. Who else matters is the entire business, all the 1700+ employees the local location the 12, 000+ of the business unit as well, and the entire company with its 72,000+ employees as a whole. If indeed our first core value is “People”, then we need to pay attention to the badge card and act accordingly. If we examine the statements on the card and take them seriously, situations like mine can be avoided. “Treat people with respect and dignity. Welcome diversity and diverse opinions. Help our fellow employees improve their skills. Recognize and reward accomplishment. Foster teamwork and collaboration.” Not one of those statements was used in trying to solve my situation, no attempt to reconcile the former admiral’s issues with my perspective was made. The decision was simply to get rid of me, dismiss me with a wave of the hand. If this treatment is allowed to continue, the company values are no more than a sham and an embarrassment to the CEO and his chief legal and ethics counsel.

Is it my problem? Yes, the problem is mine and others as well. The behavior of my supervisor and HR was shameful. I know both were moved into different positions, but it reminds me of the pedophile scandal in the Catholic Church where people are simply moved around rather than dealt with. No consequence happened to the VP or the former admiral. The detractor was told to find a new job and was without a charge number for several months. The admin of course was fired and banned from the company. I can’t imagine any of these players would advise their own children to behave in the  manner that they did. Every person is responsible for his/her own ethical and moral behavior, and the company consistently provides guidelines. However, my moral compass is strong, and I have a reputation for always doing the right thing. It’s sad not more employees feel so empowered, because moral responsibility starts with each individual’s core value system, which is supported by the company values. Personal power as defined in Shriberg, “derived from an individual’s  personal attributes…”  (Shriberg, 2005). Values behavior is certainly one of those personal attributes and thus a source of personal power and influence.

What do others think? In this situation, with so many variables,there arevarying opinions. Most think it was a major mistake to move me out of the area. Others believe that the environment was so toxic that some other issue would have caused some other problems eventually. The admin’s sins have never been completely revealed, but the facts speak for themselves:  that after I warned upper management and was ignored and that she was rehired, is a source of consternation for them. The embarrassment and shame certainly exist, but the fact that I have not turned them in to ethics as of yet is only because the former company president intervened on my behalf. If I alert the corporate ethics department of their knowingly hiring an unethical person after she was let go for poor conduct, it could indeed be a problem for them. While our president was with us, I wouldn’t cross that line, but now that he is gone, under his own cloud of suspicion, it becomes an option.

Know? Here’s what I know about this case. An untrustworthy, unethical former admiral tried to manipulate circumstances to put his own person in my job. No care or concern was given to the outcome of my future, I was a person to be removed, and in his way. An unscrupulous detractor wrote a negative email stating I didn’t have a “winning attitude”, which was used against me and circulated among senior management in Rhode Island. A shady, agenda driven boss thought he could score points with upper management by ridding the department of me and did everything in his power to intimidate, bully and coerce me into leaving, even with a previous “exceeds” rating. A disgruntled employee lied to retain her position, and management took her word over mine. Without influence of the president of the company, I would have received a letter of reprimand, and possibly have been dismissed. I received no support from HR or my department VP. A new supervisor came on board shocked to hear I was leaving the department and asked me if I was sure I wanted to “rotate”. People had multiple “ethics checkpoints”, but failed to act on them, as their own personal agendas, not the benefit of employees and the business, took precedence.

Am I being true to myself? I think in this case, I remained completely true to myself. I’m never going to say that they did me a favor, but I am so relieved to be out of that department and all its controversy. It was very difficult dealing with people who didn’t share my values, and as is common these days, people need to align with their employer’s value system, or they will not be happy. It’s sad that the area I once led still has no leader and the work that I’ve done is slowly coming unraveled. It’s also sad that the company still has little or no understanding of the professional value I brought, but that is a bitter fact of the matter. With my new job, I am more able to pursue my career goals, and plan a career rotation into HR, in leadership development and organizational effectiveness.

Furthermore,  in Hamlet Act 1, scene 3, 78–82, the advice Polonius gives his son, Laertes  is reflective of looking inward for moral guidance: “This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then / be false to any man.”  (Shakespeare, 1992).

In conclusion, a pattern of unethical behavior permitted the atmosphere for abuses, and leadership failed to lead in a moral and ethical manner as each opportunity in this scenario presented itself. If these “leaders” had asked themselves if they were uplifted by their actions, would they be proud enough to tell their children to behave as they did, or to explain their behavior to their aging parents as rewarding accomplishments, the outcome may have been different. However, the atmosphere created more resembles the world of Machiavelli, where “there are times when others must be pampered and times when they must be crushed, times when one must be kind and times when one must be cruel. The prince who learns this will be successful; the prince who insists on being virtuous rather than merely appearing so will come to ruin.”  (Shriberg, 2005)  Reflecting on the fate of our company president, who was summarily dismissed for purported ethics violations, it easy to see the Machiavellian hand played out. As the research has discovered, “Even the most effective leaders live precarious existences that are only as secure as their control over the unforeseeable.”


Mary – this is a well-developed case study. You have nicely addressed and thoughtfully developed each of Rion’s prompts. I believe it was Edmund Burke who said “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Does your organization have or ever consider hiring an ethics officer in the organization like we saw in the video? Someone other than supervisors or HR that employees can go to in such situations to express such concerns may be worth exploring. You have certainly faced some challenging ethical situation. I would think from your writing it is your faith that keeps you focused in the face of these challenges. Ultimately the decision to do the right thing rests with the individual – you get this. Overall , a very good piece.

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Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas.

Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society.

Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University.

Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.