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Avoid the perils of “Willful Blindness”

In the post Sarbanes-Oxley world, do not ever deliberately ignore wrongdoing by others, especially if you are a ‘gatekeeper.’ In other words, if you are a senior executive or general counsel, you can commit a crime if you close your eyes to wrongful conduct by your subordinates. Federal juries are often instructed that a defendant cannot escape responsibility by deliberately ignoring the obvious. This so-called ‘ostrich’ jury instruction was used to convict Jeff Skilling, the former CEO of Enron. In the Twin Cities, where I live, the general counsel for a local company pled guilty to aiding and abetting computer fraud that was being committed by others – because after learning about it, the general counsel did not do enough to stop it and did not report it. In short, if you learn of misconduct by others, address it or report it to your superior or board of directors. Do something about it and then keep a record of your action.

Willful blindness takes many forms. On a personal level, there is ‘the elephant in the living room’ syndrome – the situation where one of the members of a family has an untreated addiction. Everyone in the family knows about it, but no one says or does anything about the problem. On another level, consider the following scenario: someone you barely know, and whom you have reason to mistrust, wants to give you something valuable as a gift. You have a hunch he did not come by this item honestly but you take it anyway.

The dynamic of willful blindness has a way of appearing in the workplace as well, as Hank Shea points out. Here are some other examples: you see a fellow employee regularly taking company objects home but don’t report it; you witness a colleague doing sloppy work that is injurious to the organization but you let it slide; you are an accountant and are asked by a client to fudge the numbers – just this once – and you go along with it.

This being Holy Week, Christians are very conscious of some key events and persons in the Gospel story – especially Jesus, his mother, the apostles, women disciples, and those who met Jesus on the way of the cross. One of the significant figures was Judas, the apostle who betrayed him. Judas was the group’s treasurer. Unfortunately he had lost sight of his fiduciary duty because of his greed. I think the case can be made that Judas was blinded to the full implications of his act of betrayal by this vice. It says in Matthew’s Gospel, 27:3, “Then (after Jesus’ violent arrest) Judas seeing that Jesus had been condemned began to regret his action deeply.” His dreadful act led him to despair and to suicide.

We may find ourselves engaging in willful blindness for a variety of reasons: we don’t like conflict, we don’t want to be seen as a snitch, we don’t want to take the trouble to expose the truth, we or have a Pollyanna type personality (an unconscious bias toward the positive, according to Wikipedia, which limits one’s ability to see the negatives in life). Or, as in the case of Judas, we can delude ourselves in an act of willful blindness.

I am indebted to Jim Lamb, Eileen Devito, and John Laub for their contribution to this column.

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