Penn State & Workplace Ethical Dilemmas | Why We Behave Contrary to Our Morals

The unfolding scandal amid allegations of sexual abuse involving a former Penn State coaching assistant has led as it should to a number of resignations and terminations. The biggest names to go are Joe Paterno, the long-serving Nittany Lions football coach and the university’s president.

Sexual abuse is devastating not only for the victims but also for their loved ones. Many commentators observing the scandal from afar are shaking their heads in disbelief at how so many people could witness abuse or receive reports about it and not act more forcefully to protect and seek justice for the victims. The story is shocking and should be as President Obama suggested a cause of much “soul-searching.”

However, in addition to personal culpability, I’m inclined to believe that there are elements of corporate/team culture, which negatively impact the natural impulse to report or challenge wrongdoing. Fear of losing one’s job or income potential can be a powerful silencing motivator.

At one former job, I informally overhead some of my colleagues discussing an incident, which occurred several years earlier, before I began working there. The description, which as far as I can tell only happened once, might make one suspect that a vulnerable individual had been sexually abused.

I believe the staff narrating the incident reported it, as in the Penn State case, to their immediate supervisor. I do not know if any further action was taken at that time. But it does not appear that a report was made to either Adult Protective Services or to the police.

When I first heard the story, several years later, I was shocked and honestly did not know how to follow-up on the report. There was no direct evidence that abuse had occurred, the vulnerable individual and possible victim could not be interviewed, and there seemed to be a lack of clearly communicated agency protocol detailing the reporting of such incidents.

I have a deep respect for many of my former colleagues as they are among the most hard-working, dedicated, and caring individuals I know. They have a sincere love and concern for the welfare and well being of the people they serve and would want to protect them from harm. I say this not to excuse anyone’s actions, least of all my own, but to humanize people with very real lives and emotions put in difficult situations at work. The best way forward is not always clear.

The Penn State assistant coach who testified before a grand jury to witnessing the rape of a young boy has been threatened and vilified for not doing more to intervene. It’s very easy to claim to know how you would react if put in a similar situation. I’m sure we’d all like to think we would be the first one to stand up and jump in to intervene but I reckon some of us might respond the way the then graduate assistant coach did. If we’re honest, we must admit that we cannot know how we will react until faced with a similar situation ourselves. Others also saw or received the firsthand accounts of abuse and few seemed to act in a way we all hope we ourselves and others would act to protect these children from a sexual predator.

My colleagues reported their observations to their supervisor at the time and the situation did not progress further. My memory is hazy but I think I may have asked my supervisors for their guidance and ultimately a course was decided, which would require that I take the initiative to report the suspected abuse. Continue reading “Penn State & Workplace Ethical Dilemmas | Why We Behave Contrary to Our Morals”