December 20, 2011; Source: Knowledge@WhartonWhen there is something really, seriously wrong in an organization—and obviously a number of people would have to have known about it—the failure to bring the issue to light and act is damaging beyond belief. As this Wharton article asks with the clarity of hindsight, “Why didn’t somebody at Penn State do more to pursue allegations that former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was sexually abusing young boys? Didn’t anybody at MF Global Holdings notice that something was wrong before $1.2 billion in customer cash disappeared?”

As Wharton management professor John R. Kimberly suggests, with respect to these and other scandals, “there [is] almost a conspiracy of silence,” with people “behav[ing] differently within an organization than they would on their own.” We all probably relate to the observation of Kristin Smith-Crowe, a management professor at the University of Utah, who suggests that people “find many ways to distance themselves from the moral implications of their behavior […] by convincing themselves that [the problem or scandal] is someone else’s job to solve […or] that the problem will resolve itself or nothing negative will result.” How many times have we failed to stand up and call out miscreants among our peers or superiors for just these reasons? University of Pennsylvania philosophy professor Cristina Bicchieri adds, “The cozier and the more close-knit the group, the less incentive you have to stir the waters.”

Oftentimes, people cannot even talk about the problem, much less act on it, for fear of upsetting the organizational apple cart or appearing disloyal to the organization or to the boss. Los Angeles consultant Don Rossmore suggests, in essence, that the problem starts at the top. “When leaders do not want an issue discussed, it is not discussed,” he says. “When an issue is undiscussable, it cannot be managed rationally.” Wharton’s analysis is that “Most experts agree that leaders must set the tone for the entire organization, work to elicit discussion about taboo topics, and maintain transparency about how they respond to any concerns.”

The alternative, suggests Wharton management professor Lawrence Hrebiniak, is not pleasant. He suggests that, “You need top management to react strongly. If they bury the stuff, they’re dead.”

Any unmentionables or undiscussables in your organizations?—Rick Cohen