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Presumed Innocent - The Pitfalls of a Trusting Nature

by Rowena Crosbie, President, Tero International

Presumption of innocence is a fundamental right in most civilized countries. In criminal trials, the burden of proof rests on the prosecution which is required to meet a threshold of reasonable doubt in the presentation of evidence. So indoctrinated are we to the concept that a presumption of guilt is regarded as immoral. To that end, business practices, such as pre-employment drug testing, are frequently the target of rights activists who believe such practices violate the principle by requiring job candidates to prove themselves innocent.

Beyond law and order, the presumption of innocence has implications in all aspects of our lives. From parenting to education to business to politics, and everything in between, we are continuously challenged to assume the best in others and suffer the disappointment and consequences when our trust turns out to have been misplaced.

In the business world, leaders are encouraged to build a culture of trust. Evidence of this consistent message to leaders was revealed through a casual google search on the words "trust" and "leadership" that yielded over 21 million hits. Nearly all of the volumes of books, articles, classes and speeches on the subject extol the virtues of trust, remind leaders that employee surveys reveal a deficit of trust, and encourage leaders to trust more and assume the best. After all, presuming innocence is not only an essential moral foundation of a civilized society but it is also sensible business practice. Or is it?

Consider these troubling statistics from the 2006 Josephson Institute Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth. The Josephson Institute of Ethics is the organization that administers the CHARACTER COUNTS!SM youth ethics project.

The survey of young people asked questions about their behavior in the past 12 months. These are the findings:

How did the survey respondents feel about their own behavior?

The numbers tell an interesting story. The same population who described themselves as ethical also admitted to lying, cheating and stealing, on the same survey.

Could the survey results be skewed? Unfortunately the results probably understate the situation. Think about who might lie when completing a survey. People are more likely to say they didn't lie when they did but doing the opposite (saying they lied when they didn't) is unlikely.

These same young people weighed in with their views on the importance of ethics and character.

What can be gleaned from these contradictions? Apparently the behaviors of lying, cheating and stealing that the survey respondents admitted to have been justified in their own minds, extending to themselves the presumption of innocence.

It's a disturbing thought that the young people who confessed to these ethical breaches today are the parents, educators, colleagues, employees, managers, elected officials and business owners of tomorrow.

Are the subjects of this study representative of the general population? How would your child respond to this survey if anonymity was guaranteed? How would you respond?

How can we reconcile the conflicting messages? Presumption of innocence versus rampant confessions of deception. High moral standards versus inherent human frailties.

There is little we can do, or indeed little anyone would want to do, about the fundamental right we cherish of the presumption of innocence. To embrace a philosophy that presumes guilt would be tantamount to turning back the clock on civilization. Further, there may be little we can do about the deceptions and tactics others employ in their own self-interest.

Can a trusting nature and a healthy dose of skepticism co-exist? Here are six helpful tips:

To learn more about the Josephson Institute's Report Card Survey on the Ethics of American Youth please see: www.charactercounts.org

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