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:
82% admit they lied to a parent about something significant. 62% admit they lied to a teacher about something significant.
60% admit to cheating during a test at school. 35% did it two or more times.
33% admit to copying an internet document. 18% did it two or more times.
28% admit to stealing something from a store. 23% stole from a parent or relative. 19% stole from a friend.
How did the survey respondents feel about their own behavior?
92% report that they are "satisfied with my own ethics and character".
84% expected that half or more of all the people who knew them would list them as one of the most ethical people they know.
74% responded, "when it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know".
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.
98% said "it's important for me to be a person with good character".
98% believe "honesty and trust are essential in personal relationships".
97% said "it's important to me that people trust me".
83% say "it's not worth it to lie or cheat because it hurts your character".
94% said "in business and the workplace, trust and honesty are essential".
89% agree that "being a good person is more important than being rich".
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:
1. Remind yourself that the presumption of innocence afforded to an individual does not require naiveté when considering large numbers of people that surveys reveal bend rules and later rationalize their own bad behavior. Assume the best in others while also championing the establishment of safeguards in areas entrusted to your care (homes, schools, workplaces) to reduce both temptation and the ease of wrongdoing by individuals inclined to breach ethics. On occasions when you are deceived, resist the temptation to transfer your feelings to others who may be worthy of your trust.
2. Trust and also verify. Ask for details. Ask for information to be repeated. Ask lots of questions. Ask about different topics. Ask for others to provide written summaries of steps taken and actions agreed. Even the most skilled liar will often stumble when required to fabricate many answers or when required to record their deeds on paper.
3. When possible, choose personal face-to-face communications. It's easier for people to lie when the communication is more impersonal such as on the phone or via email. The expediency of electronic communication is small reward if you've been deceived.
4. Don't overestimate your ability to detect deception. Mechanized lie detectors and polygraph tests have proven unreliable in detecting lies and in providing an alarming number of false-positives. Similarly unreliable are many human attempts to accurately diagnose deception, even by highly trained professionals like police officers and judges who get a lot of practice being lied to.
5. If you have a naturally trusting nature (many of us do) and believe others until you have a reason to distrust them, balance it with a strong sense of curiosity and awareness, especially early in the relationship-building process. Trust is built over time. A lesson North Americans can learn from other cultures is to slow down and seek to build a relationship with the other party before reaching an agreement, negotiating the solution to a problem, or closing a deal. The odds of being deceived are much higher in transactions that involve a single interaction over those that involve a series of interactions over time.
6. Above all, don't contribute to the problem. Hold yourself to a higher standard. Become the rare person who carefully and consciously chooses your behavior. Constantly question and challenge yourself. Are you judging yourself by your good intentions or by your actions? Are you rationalizing a bad act after-the-fact to justify it or did you act from your core values? Remind yourself that your acts of omission are just as dangerous as acts of commission when the result is another person inferring an untruth. Many of us create a double-standard by refusing to lie on principle (innocent of commission) yet fail to disclose important information (guilty by omission). Foster a culture of trust by talking about ethics, go public in your commitment to honesty and openness, and role model the behaviors you want to see. And when you make a mistake, as you inevitably will, 'fess up and make it right.
To learn more about the Josephson Institute's Report Card Survey on the Ethics of American Youth please see: www.charactercounts.org
Please fill out the form below and a Tero Representative will contact you shortly.
The Your Invisible Toolbox® Movement tackles the challenges most individuals, teams, and organizations face. An award-winning book paired with a companion YouTube show and card deck, provide a unique set of research-based tools, put together in an easy-to-apply road map to success.Find Out More and Join The Movement