January 2009 Archives

We've all seen it over and over. There is a new election, sometimes even a recall vote. The old politicians get voted out and new ones come in with a promise of change. Yet, six months, a year, two years later, there seem to be the same problems and it starts all over again.

Over the past 15 years, I have been elected to a number of boards and offices in local, state and national organizations. I'm not a really political person but often people think of me as a good candidate - literally. I fit the profile - I have kids, a job, no criminal records, not currently addicted to anything,  no secret history of embezzling, sexual harassment and in good enough health to finish out a term. Hey, you get over 50 years old and the number of people that fall into all of those categories at once is shrinking pretty fast! On top of it all, I am "that age", you know the age when you don't have the excuse to get out of meetings that you have a bunch of little kids at home, and there is the assumption you are old enough to know something potentially valuable.

Probably like many of you, the deciding factor in my election to each office was that something made me mad. Some injustice or unethical act happened that jarred me out of my complacency so that I finally said,
"We cannot have people like that running our organizations. We need people with courage, integrity, perseverance and generosity in positions of power, not small-minded, petty, vindictive, dishonest cowards. "

My first office came about when someone who I had criticized said to me sarcastically,
"Well, if you think you can do so much better, why don't you run against me?"

So, I did. And I won. Now what?

That was years ago, and here is what I have learned.
  1. The slide into unethical behavior happens little by little. I have never been tempted to take ten thousand dollars that did not belong to me. It has, however, been difficult to tell people  I have known for years who asked me to select them for positions,
    • "I'm sorry, Dean, but I had to choose the person who I believed would do the best job. That's my responsibility to the people who voted for me, to see they get the best possible services."
  2. It's easy to justify small unethical acts when you believe you are on the right side. It is the old utilitarian argument, the greatest good for the greatest number. I had a discussion with a friend yesterday that went something like this:
    • "AnnMaria, I know the rules say that a person needed to have a certain amount of hours of continuing education for that certification, but Roger controls a lot of votes. Can't you just sign him off as if he did it? I mean, really, is it worth losing an election just to make one guy jump through the hoops?"
  3. It's a lot harder to stand up to your friends than to your enemies.
    • "What do you mean you aren't going to support that funding for my program? It's me, Lorraine! Haven't I always been willing to take on any task, sign on to any committee when you needed help? I can't believe this!"
  4. A lot of people who you thought were your friends turn out not to be.
All of the topics discussed in the Introduction to Ethics for Tribal Workers course are observed on every board on which I have ever been a member. There is a big need for honesty. I am sure my friend sincerely believed he was right in encouraging me to not make an enemy of Roger. As a true friend, he wanted to see me succeed. He really supports me and wants to see me re-elected. I value that and true friends are hard to find. That is why it took not just honesty, but courage to answer him, knowing I might lose a friend. If you think it is easy, you have obviously not been in that situation. Here is what I told him,

"I don't believe in special rules for special people. The same laws apply to everyone. We follow the same policies for everyone. How can I say that James, Donna and Carol had to attend those classes over the past years to keep their jobs, but Roger doesn't? What makes him deserve special privileges that they don't get? Because he has a lot of votes? If I need to become like the people I replaced to keep this job, then what have we really accomplished getting elected?"

Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, had a wonderful line in her autobiography that I have quoted many times, explaining the unpopular decisions she made, decisions that may, in the end, have cost her the position she held as one of the most powerful women in the world.

"Once you sell your soul, no one can ever buy it back for you."

So, I refused to sign off on Roger's paperwork, picked someone more qualified than Dean for the open position and gave the funding to programs that needed it more than Lorraine's. Over four years, it has taken courage, perseverance, honesty and generosity - the generosity to help out other programs, other people, without any expectation of return-  even when they were not my friends and maybe never even knew I helped them.

It has been hard. If you are going to try to make any changes, please don't underestimate how difficult it will be. Be prepared.

I had to smile, too, thinking about this. I read Dr. Longie's blog. He and I debate ideas and terminology a lot. I am a solid Catholic and he very definitely is not. 

I would say, in the end, I still have my soul.

Reading Erich's blog, I guess I would say, I have been a man and a real Indian.

Hmmm.... in this case, I think perhaps my terms work better. 

Okay, I lied. I don't have a Cherokee grandmother. I am pretty sure my grandmother never met a Cherokee in her life. A few years ago,  after a conference, we were all having dinner and as usually happens when two Indians meet each other, one of my co-workers asked another person at our table what tribe he was from. He smiled and said,
"Well, I know that every white person you ever met claims to be half Cherokee, but, ma'am, I really AM half-Cherokee."

I am guessing that since that was the tribal program that had sent him to the conference, he was, too. I was thinking of this gentleman today when I was trying to explain why the Tribal Leaders Institute is different. You probably do face a little skepticism telling people you are Cherokee when every other person is claiming to have a grandmother who was a Cherokee princess (does anyone know if the Cherokee ever actually had princesses? It sounds kind of unlikely to me.)

Looking all over the web, I saw a lot of sites like this Native American Traditional Code of Ethics, which I have no idea whether it is written by three people who are enrolled members of a tribe in Arkansas (note to self: find out if there are any tribes in Arkansas) or by a New York City ad agency. Legitimate or not, it had a lot of nice sentiments like "Respect your elders," "Don't interrupt other people", "Be truthful". I could hardly object to this by arguing that it is better to disrespectfully interrupt people with lies.

Talking to Erich about it today, it finally dawned on me why these sites bothered me. In her book on the seven signs of moral meltdown, Marianne Jennings mentioned a couple of times companies like Enron that had "Ethics Codes"  even won awards from organizations set up to recognize such things, at the same time that the company was defrauding stockholders and governments of millions of dollars, outright lying in its annual reports and so on.

There is a huge difference between having a nice-sounding ethical code and living it. Erich often says that the most crooked people are found in church. I am not sure about that. I go to church more than most people. On the other hand, I have to agree with him that going to church is no guarantee that you didn't spend the week embezzling a million dollars.

I think this is why so many of those "Native American creed" websites bother me. Over the years, I have known a heck of a lot of people who claimed to be "traditional", told me all about their culture, went to sweats or sun dances or a whole bunch of other things, but also flat out stole money from their programs, cheated on their wife right and left, did not support their children and were about as far from ethical as one can be.

Then, there are people like Erich, like Carol Davis, Lorraine Greybear, Nelrene Yellow Bird, Willie Davis and others, kind of like the man at dinner who really was half-Cherokee. They talk about their culture but they also seriously do their best for whatever program that employs them, work the hours they get paid and go out of their way to learn more, do more, help their community. They never claim to have any credentials like speaking Dakota fluently or having a graduate degree unless they really do have that. As we used to say when I was young, they don't just talk the talk, they walk the walk.

That, I think is the critical difference in the Tribal Leaders Institute. People are encouraged to live those values, to be examples and to challenge violations of the values that they claim to support. My grandmother would be proud.

In case you are wondering, although I doubt you are, this picture was taken on an island not all that far from where I would have grown up if my grandparents had not decided to emigrate to CANADA ! Having gone to visit, I wish my grandmother was still alive, not only because I miss her wisdom and good humor, but also because I want to ask her, "You moved from here to CANADA?! WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING?"


Tolstoy wrote that, "All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

SLguys.jpgI thought about that quote today when Erich and I were talking about people who punched in their hours at work and then went home, only to come back to the office six hours later and make a big show of "staying late". Others who spent the day watching movies or surfing the Internet and still others who claimed to be working from home but actually spent the day perfecting their score in World of Warcraft.

Erich asked me,
"Why do you think people do that?"

I had to think about the various people I knew for a while, and I finally came up with this answer. I think each person who is unethical is unethical for a different reason.

Show the man! You can't do this to me!  I know one who used to be a really good employee, worked hard at his job, made a real effort to do it well, spent his time when he wasn't busy with other tasks learning more so he could do his job better. His work place was pretty relaxed about hours. As long as you did your job, the boss didn't care when you came in or if you worked from home part of the time. Then, a new boss was hired who laid down the law. Everyone was to be in at 8 a.m., work at their desk and stay until 5 p.m. Our good employee,  Bob, resented this very much. Since he had been in the job for years, he had a lot of sick leave. Bob started calling in sick every Monday. Sometimes he would call in sick on Tuesday, too. Other days, he would be there in the morning, go home for lunch and not come back for four hours. If anyone asked, he had "just stepped away from his desk for a minute." Bob was a really good employee and became an unethical employee out of resentment. As the years went by, this kind of behavior lost him the respect of the people who had originally valued him and thought his new boss was overly controlling. As Bob missed out on promotions, he became more resentful and his behavior worsened until he was hardly there at all.

Why work when you don't have to? Hard work is for suckers.  Sam was never a good employee as long as anyone can remember. While Bob worked hard under the old boss, Sam was just the type of person the new policies were put in place to prevent. For years, his department ran pretty much on the honor system that you would do your work. Since no one was checking on him, Sam spent hours volunteering at his children's school. He proudly pointed out the playground equipment the parents had built on a project he had supervised for weeks. When a coworker asked how he had managed to do all of that during work hours, Sam just shrugged. Sam ran a small woodworking business on the side also. He frequently took off to buy wood or deliver products to customers. When new regulations came out in his field, Sam had no idea because he didn't bother to read the documents that were sent to him. He just left them on his desk for a few days and then filed them. If a client asked Sam a question he couldn't answer, he simply told the person they had called the wrong department and he didn't know what department handled their problem.

No one never taught me different.  While Sam and Bob know very well that you shouldn't be charging hours at work when you are at home watching a Law & Order marathon, Rachel is a bit of a different case. She is new to the department and this is her first job on the reservation. The only other job she ever had was a part-time cashier at Wal-mart. She sees her co-workers not coming to work at all, or coming in for a few hours and leaving for six hours for personal errands. Rachel knows that is wrong. She comes into work every day at 8 a.m. and leaves at 5. She clocks out for lunch for exactly half an hour. After a year, she knows her job pretty well. She can file the forms, answer questions and usually has an extra two hours in her day. Since no one tells her anything else to do, she spends those two hours watching DVDs. She has gone through every season of Beverly HIlls 90210, The Simpsons and is now starting on Boston Legal. Why not? She is there eight hours a day, as she is supposed to be, and her computer has a DVD player, so why shouldn't she watch her favorite shows at work. Her work is getting done. If it is not always done exactly as quickly as it could be, it is done far quicker than if Bob or Sam was assigned a task, plus she is actually in the office if anyone needs her.

So, I guess it comes down to some people are born unethical workers, some people achieve unethical worker status and other people have being an unethical worker thrust upon them. That's what Bob would say, anyway, if he was here.