The firing of Joe Paterno as coach of Penn State has dominated the news this week. A legendary coach with the most wins in the history of major college football, Joe was dismissed for not doing more to stop the alleged sexual abuse of children by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.
The news came as a shock, because in many ways Joe was considered an outstanding human being. Not only had he coached at Penn State for 61 years, he’d also donated more than $3 million to the university and helped raise more than $13 million for its library.
I feel badly about the Paterno firing for two reasons. First, I’m deeply saddened about the impact of the alleged sexual abuse on the victims and their families. Second, I’m saddened for the students at Penn State, who argued that the board of trustees should have allowed Joe at least one more game or let him finish the season. From their point of view, Joe had broken no laws. When he’d learned about the sexual abuse, he’d reported it to the athletic director and to the vice president.
As I thought about it this week, the case of Joe Paterno is a classic example of why it’s so important to do the Ethics Check when making key decisions. In our book The Power of Ethical Management: Integrity Pays! You Don’t Have To Cheat To Win, Norman Vincent Peale and I describe the Ethics Check, which poses a series of questions around three areas: legality, fairness, and self-esteem. The next time you’re faced with a dilemma, ask yourself these questions:
1. Is it legal? Will you be violating either civil law or organizational policy?
In today’s society, people tend to focus on this first aspect of the Ethics Check—the legal question. They think if they can get lawyers to okay the decision, they’re doing the right thing. But just because an action is legal does not make it ethical. To assure that you’re doing the right thing, it’s a good idea to review the second two aspects of the Ethics Check.
2. Is it balanced? Is it fair to all concerned in the short term as well as the long term? Does it promote win-win relationships?
If Coach Paterno had really thought through the fairness question—if he had fully considered the trauma to the victims and their families—he might have realized that he needed to do more. He’s already made statements that he probably should have done more. The fairness question goes beyond the legal question and looks at the effect your decision will have on others.
3. How will it make you feel about yourself? Will it make you proud? Would you feel good if your decision was published in the newspapers? Would you feel good if your kids and grandkids knew about it?
Unethical behavior erodes self-esteem. That’s why you feel troubled when you make a decision that goes against your own innate sense of what’s right. As the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “There is no pillow as soft as a clear conscience.” Thinking through how you’d feel if your actions were published in the newspaper or if your kids found out about them can help you decide the right thing to do. I’m sure that if Paterno knew how this incident would dominate his reputation at the end of his career, he certainly would have done more.
This simple but powerful Ethics Check can help anyone—from world leaders to boards of directors to private citizens—make decisions that stand the test of time and result in the greatest good. When you look at all three aspects of the Ethics Check, you can see that in making their tough decision, the board of trustees at Penn State did the right thing.