From Nixon to Enron, we still haven’t learned the timeless ethical principle that says, “A cover-up always makes the situation worse.” Most kids learned this lesson after a failed attempt to superglue mom’s favorite lamp back together following an indoor baseball accident. But if you didn’t learn your lesson about cover-ups back then, why should it be any different today?
In the workplace, the ethical principle behind the classic cover-up is basically the same but with a different setting. Maybe you accidentally broke a piece of expensive equipment and shifted the blame elsewhere. Or possibly your coworker takes a sick day to play and you pass on his phony excuse. On a larger scale, maybe your company is losing money so you falsify accounting records to keep the stockholders happy. Whether they are “little-white cover-ups” or front page scandals, they involve the same ingredients.
By definition, a cover-up is an attempt to conceal something illegal, immoral, or undesirable. In simple terms, it is a lie. And lies by any standard are wrong. But what makes cover-ups so bad is what they say about the character of the individual. It is the difference between a first offender and a hardened, serial offender. Most people can forgive someone caught in a lie. But when someone tries to keep it going in a pathetic cycle of deception, it has gone too far. Cover-ups require devious planning, premeditation, denial, and complete disrespect.
Understand that all of our cover-ups attempted over the years are really no different in principle from the high-profile scandals in the news. In most political scandals, it’s the perjury and obstruction of justice that lands the defendant in hot water. Again, the cover-up ends up causing more trouble that the initial incident.
The classic cover-up consists of three phases: 1. the initial incident; 2. diverting of responsibility through a lie; 3. a series of subsequent lies used for diversion, blame, and damage-control. The point that you should have learned as a child from the broken lamp was that you should NEVER let yourself go past the first phase. You should stop the cycle immediately by accepting responsibility and making the situation right.
But it’s never that simple and we too often escalate to phase two and three without thinking. Why don’t we learn our lesson? What is it that compels us to cover up wrongdoing rather than admitting it?
Like most people, your first reaction to seeing the broken lamp on the floor is fear – fear that you’ll get punished and fear of the unknown. Fear can do strange things to you. It can completely highjack your rational decision-making process and lead to panic. In this heightened state of anxiety, your fight-or-flight tendencies kick in and you’ll do anything to survive, including telling as many lies as it takes.
Next your pride kicks in. You must save face. You can’t look weak or allow yourself to be wrong. The saying, “Pride comes before a fall,” is an undeniable truth. When the dust settles after a cover-up, those standing on the outside usually ask, “How could he(or she) be so stupid?” But it’s not a question of intelligence, it’s a matter of pride. Pride and ego are such strong forces to be reckoned with that even the smartest person in the room can be swept into stupidity.
Let’s face it, covering-up always seems easier than telling the truth. We all have a natural human tendency to want to “fix” things. But make no mistake, lying does not show how clever you are but shows weakness of character. True strength lies in your ability to do the right thing even though it does not benefit you. This is called character. People of character don’t need to cover-up their mistakes because they are strong enough to face them, learn from them, and rise above them.
Steering clear of cover-ups is a conscious choice. You have to consciously resist the flood of fear and panic that invade your ethical decision-making process when you’ve blown it. You have to consciously check your ego at the door and show genuine humility. To choose the honesty pathway through an ethical crisis may not come naturally but it can get easier with time and practice.
Of course, the truth is that cover-ups don’t always work. You weren’t fooling anybody and your mother knew all along who broke the lamp. So, the next time you feel the urge to dig your way out of the ethical crisis with a cover-up, stop, think, and step away from the superglue.