When the news of Lance Armstrong’s doping allegations hit what we thought was the media and judicial nadir this summer, a friend of mine’s upstanding, informed, college-bound son irritably commented that he didn’t see the point of “all of this.” If everyone does it—and everyone does, according to him—why not legalize it? What he was saying, as many others have, is that taking performance-enhancing drugs has become normalized within our ethics framework—even though it is illegal and a clear violation of sporting event regulations.
Normalization of doping is a scary thought, but the real problem is actually much worse and more widespread than doping or any specific unethical practice. The real issue is contagion of unethical behavior generally. Not everyone negatively affected by, or drawn into, an ethical crisis similar to Lance Armstrong’s will engage in doping. However, many will engage in other forms of unethical behavior directly or indirectly related to the doping (the so-called “mafia”). Many more innocent bystanders will suffer consequences of the unethical behavior that traces back to the initial decision to dope.
How does this contagion happen? My current research focuses on understanding contagion of unethical behavior in different sectors (including corporations, funds, and nonprofit organizations). Unethical behavior is contagious within organizations and teams, within industries and sectors, and across sectors (including corporate, nonprofit, academic, governmental, and multilateral). It is a challenge for both civil society and government.
The multidimensional ripple effects of Lance Armstrong’s crisis (or Libor, Raj Gupta, African dictatorships, and others) are too numerous to list. While very grave, the most troubling effects are not related to the first-line perpetrators and victims—the coaches, doctors, sponsors, the US Postal Service, other athletes, the Tour de France event, the Olympics, other sporting events, the media, etc. Some of these were directly engaged in unethical behavior; most were victims.
Nor are the second and third line victims and perpetrators the most worrisome: the donors to the Livestrong Foundation and purchasers of Livestrong products in support of a supposedly ethical hero and winner; the taxpayers financing the legal proceedings; dedicated boards of corporate sponsors and the Livestrong Foundation; the cancer care community, which unwittingly used tainted funds for a good cause; the families of all of these; and countless others.
Rather, let’s consider how far contagion carries us. Children and teenagers feel emboldened to try potentially life-threatening drugs through illicit sources and without medical supervision. Early-stage queries (such as French newspaper L’Equipe’s accusations years ago) are dismissed in favor of a legendary reputation protected by financial power and fame. The slippery slope toward a culture normalizing cheating—or normalizing any unethical behavior—just because “everyone is doing it” becomes, well, normal.
At this stage of my research, I don’t yet have the explanations for the mechanisms of contagion or best prevention techniques, but here are a few blog-brief framework suggestions:
First, corporations should ensure more-nuanced ethics oversight (including on-going due diligence) than the standard up-front checks in connection with sponsorship, corporate social responsibility, and corporate philanthropy. This includes forward-looking, proactive measures to protect against contagion of unethical behavior internally and externally to beneficiaries of corporate engagements.
Second, nonprofit organizations should reinforce forward-looking ethics oversight at board and senior management levels. I do not advocate excessive risk aversion relating to potentially beneficial corporate engagement opportunities; the response to today’s relentless scandal-ridden headlines should be analysis with good judgment, not judgmental avoidance. The approach should not be blanket elimination of corporate engagement under the guise of independence. One key issue is the timing challenge of donor acceptance policies, such as when unethical behavior on the part of a corporate or individual donor surfaces after donor due diligence is complete (for example, Durham University’s acceptance of a major donation from a Kuwaiti prime minister who subsequently stepped down in response to corruption accusations).
Third, because no organization is immune to unethical behavior, both for-profit and nonprofit organizations should implement policies, incentive structures, and cultures rewarding rapid and responsible reactions to episodes of unethical behavior. Responsibility runs to the public, employees and volunteers, customers and beneficiaries, shareholders and donors, and those behaving unethically. Open acknowledgement and rapid response are essential to preventing the contagion “mafia”—along with zero tolerance for layers of lies.
Back to Lance Armstrong. I believe that the key to ending the contagion in this case is Lance Armstrong himself. There is an opportunity for him to be a real hero in the end. It will be far more complicated than the doping quagmire and require far more courage than the Tour de France. He must stop the contagion, starting by openly exposing all aspects of the unethical behavior and taking full responsibility for his part. Only then can potential remedies be explored and implemented. Only then can lessons be learned and applied to other types of unethical behavior in other areas of civil society.