Breakdowns in the chain of command can wreak havoc inside of a workplace. This week’s headlines were full of stories about the consequences of management-made mistakes, from the sex abuse scandal at Penn State to the gory errors at Dover Air Force Base. We talk to Howard Ross about the intersection of personal responsibility and power structures in the workplace.


  • Howard Ross Author, "Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose, and Performance (Rowman & Littlefield); also Principal, Cook Ross


  • 13:06:42

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Howard Ross is here. If there's no I in team and an organization's strengths are rooted in its structure, where do we, as individuals, enter into the equation at work? Any company with more than one employee has a hierarchy in some sort of change of command and place.

  • 13:07:23

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIA structure meant to resolve legal and ethical concerns that arise at work, some are formal, others less so, but when higher ups fail to resolve problems, the moral and monetary costs can be staggering. So when does personal responsibility supersede the power structure in the workplace? Here to help us try to figure that out is Howard Ross. He's a diversity consultant and a principal at Cook Ross. Howard, good to have you joins us.

  • 13:07:52

    MR. HOWARD ROSSHi, Kojo. It's good to be back.

  • 13:07:53

    NNAMDIYou're having something for your new book tonight, aren't you?

  • 13:07:56

    ROSSYeah, thanks, Kojo. We're having a book signing at -- this evening from 5:30 to 7:30 at Hager Sharp at 1030 15th Street, Suite 600E. So if anybody (unintelligible) ...

  • 13:08:06

    NNAMDIAnd the name of the book?

  • 13:08:08

    ROSSIs "Reinventing Diversity."

  • 13:08:09

    NNAMDI"Reinventing Diversity." A lot of people feel a personal responsibility to report morally wrong or criminal behavior they witness and many workplaces have a pretty specific method for doing so. How should a chain of command work?

  • 13:08:27

    ROSSWell, one thing that I think that's important is for us to realize, is like so many other issues, when we look in hindsight and -- at some of these issues, they seem pretty obvious and, you know, of course, you would do this. But in reality, is they're playing themselves out, they're very complex. And we've -- we're trying to balance in any of these circumstances between, on one hand, the desire to create, you know, in the case of most of the circumstances that we've been seeing over the course of the last couple weeks is a safe environment for people.

  • 13:08:58

    ROSSAn environment which people are reasonably protected. They're not subject to harassment or even worse. And on the other hand, an environment in which people have to be responsible for the fact that when you do report somebody for a suspicion of something, it can create havoc in that person's life, even if they're found to be innocent of the charge. And so, as a result of that, you know it's not cut and dry in terms of people's response. And of course, the third component, which we can really see, shows up often in the case of, for example, sexual harassment claims is how am I going to be treated and how is it going to affect me if I'm the, quote, "whistle blower"?

  • 13:09:36

    ROSSSo are people going to treat me different? Am I going to seen as a pariah or somebody who ratted somebody out or something like that or somebody who's making a mountain out of a mole hill, whatever it is. And so all of these things are very complex and so it's got to be a very thoughtful, conscious thing for an organization to have a...

  • 13:09:53

    NNAMDIFollowing proper protocol and launching investigations can take, sometimes, a long time. How do you know whether things have stalled or whether they're actually being pursued?

  • 13:10:05

    ROSSWell, it's challenging because, of course, the organization, the corporation, in the case of a business, has a legal responsibility to protect confidentiality of the person who's being accused for the very reasons I said. If, in fact, it turns out that something is not proven -- and, of course, we've seen very famous cases of things that were not proven. The one that comes to mind is the accusation against Ike Leggett a couple years ago, for example, the Montgomery County executive.

  • 13:10:30

    NNAMDIIt's more than a couple, but go ahead.

  • 13:10:31

    ROSSYeah, well, I guess it were or time is flying by...

  • 13:10:33

    NNAMDIFor us, it's a couple.

  • 13:10:34

    ROSS...that's where you and Ike time is flying by. But things like that happen, that can seriously damage people's reputation. And so often, I know that people in human resources, who are usually the people who are handling things like this, or in a legal departments of organizations are put into a real bind, which is, they want to go back and say to people we're handing this and something's going to be happening. But on the other hand, they're actually legally prevented from saying certain things.

  • 13:10:58

    ROSSAnd ultimately, I think from the standpoint of most employees, what has them feel more comfortable is when they've developed a sense of trust over period of time in the organization, that the organization takes these kinds of instances seriously and doesn't just step over them and then because there's that trust involved, they don't need to be watching it minute by minute. But that trust is hard to establish and harder to keep.

  • 13:11:19

    NNAMDIWhat has been surprising to me is the number of incidents like this that have been in the news lately. The Penn State story is getting a lot of press, but what other stories chronicling similar failures in the workplace chain of command have you been following? Call us at 800-433-8850. What other stories chronicling failures in the workplace chain of command have you been noticing? 800-433-8850 or send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to Howard, when a subordinate reports an incident to a supervisor and it is not addressed, does the ownership for pursuing it further shift back to the person who reported it initially?

  • 13:12:00

    ROSSWell, I think there are two answers to the question. There's one which is a legal question and then there's the other which is a moral or a ethical question. I think that -- and obviously this is the question where this was young man McWhirter, I think, his name. The coach or at the time graduate assistant at Penn State, you know. Why didn't he, when he saw that -- I'm sorry I forget his name, the guy (unintelligible) ...

  • 13:12:23

    NNAMDIJerry Sandusky.

  • 13:12:24

    ROSS...Jerry Sandusky, the accused -- and by the way, I think one of the things we have to remember in all of these cases is that nobody's been convicted of anything...

  • 13:12:31


  • 13:12:31 these cases. Now, we all have our opinions about what's true and what's not. But I find it particularly troubling over the course of the last couple weeks, how fast and loose this conversation has been in the press in terms of what people did or were accused of doing. But in any case, so you go to the person who is the authority figure and you tell the person to do what they're doing and -- or what happened and you assume that they're handling it. And if it doesn't get handled over a period of time, particularly in a serious incident like this where you see that there -- continues to be the potential of the same kind of behavior occurring, one would say that the moral or ethical responsibility is then to take it to the next level.

  • 13:13:08

    ROSSOn the other hand, that's easy to say, but not necessarily easy for people to do. And I think if you look at this young man, McWhirter, you can really see the kind of dilemma, both consciously and unconsciously, that occurs for a person in this situation. This is a person, my coach, who has been, in essence, a second father to me. He's also the pathway to my career development. He's who I aspired to be like my whole life. If he says this is the way we need to handle it, is this a mentor telling me from his experience that this is the best way to handle these kinds of things or is this somebody who's not taking responsibility for doing what he needs to be doing therefore I need to go around his back?

  • 13:13:44

    ROSSAnd in doing so, risk my entire career path moving it to the future. Now, I'm not saying that excuse is the fact that he doesn't move forward, but I think it's helpful in circumstances like this to not only be judgmental, but to also put ourselves in the shoes of a person in that circumstance and see how they might've made the decision that (unintelligible) ...

  • 13:13:59

    NNAMDIWell, let's take it to its logical extreme because no institution exemplifies the chain of command better than the military. When a chain is that ridged as it is at the military, how hard it is for subordinates to break out from it. And I say that because so often the game of football, all of its analogies, all of its terms tend to be military and that chain of command reminds me more of the military than anything else. How hard is it for subordinates to break out from that chain?

  • 13:14:29

    ROSSYeah, well, first of all, I think you're right. And corporations, to some degree too. We talk about a line level employees, we talk about chain of command. I mean, these are all military terms for a reason. And the military structure was the one that business was built on back in the early 20th century and it -- as you say, certainly athletics is built very much on that structure. And it's very difficult to break out of the chain of command. It's both difficult from a, you know, an actual basis and that is I need to go around my commanding officer and file a complaint to somebody.

  • 13:14:58

    ROSSI've now -- as I've said before, I've risked my role in the retribution that comes with that by not being a team player, in the greatest sense, but I also had been trained to listen and follow orders. This is a command that controls structure. The very nature of the military is one in which people are taught you just need to do what you're told. And there's a reason for that. In warfare, you don't want people sitting around and saying, well, what do you think about what the Captain said? Oh, I don’t agree with them. I don't think -- you know, no. I mean, take that hill means take that hill or otherwise people are going to die.

  • 13:15:31

    ROSSAnd that has a tendency both consciously and unconsciously to remove that level of responsibility. And so we see in some very famous cases, of course, going back to My Lai back in Vietnam...

  • 13:15:41


  • 13:15:41

    ROSS...or Abu Ghraib in some of the cases of what happened in Abu Ghraib that people see things that aren't right and that something inside of them just shuts down. And, you know, denial is an incredibly strong force in our psyches, the ability to deny that there's something, you know, that's either wrong here or that we're responsible for doing something about it. And it...

  • 13:15:59

    NNAMDIIn addition to which we we're always talking about new protections for whistle blowers...

  • 13:16:02


  • 13:16:02

    NNAMDI...or what happens with that.

  • 13:16:03

    ROSSYes. And I remember of an old Snoopy cartoon I saw with the caption of which had something to the effect of there's no problem so big that you can't avoid dealing with it.

  • 13:16:11

    NNAMDIObviously some problems, however, are bigger than others. If Frank doesn't get taken to task after Bob reports him for stealing Post-its, the consequences are fewer than they would be if Bob had seen Frank assaulting someone and it was not followed up on. Is it up to each individual to figure out what's worth pursuing beyond the first report to a supervisor and what isn't?

  • 13:16:35

    ROSSWell, absolutely. You know, I would think that most of us agree. Most people agree. And if you, you know, read the news and there's not like there's been any lack of it, for example, around the Penn State incident that most people think that something should have been done at the moment when this young man walked into the shower and saw a 10-year-old being sodomized or whatever was going on there, presumably -- is presuming that that actually happened.

  • 13:16:57

    ROSSBut most circumstances, of course, are not that black and white. Most circumstances are not that dramatic. But even in that case, you could see where, in the shock of the moment, you know, I don't even know this person so I don't know what his moral fiber is or anything else. You know me, there's no way for us to say he's was a bad person for doing it or he's a bad person as much as in stunned shock, looking at this person who is an icon in his life, he ran and talked to his dad.

  • 13:17:21

    ROSSHis dad said, talk to the coach. He ran and talked to the coach and the coach said, I'll handle it and talked to the athletic director and pretty soon that happens. I think that for most of us, this stuff lives in a gray area. Well, it was inappropriate, but it looks like they've got it handled or I talked to my boss and my boss said that they're handling it. And so do I challenge my boss or do I get back to work? And unfortunately, in a lot of cases where people should've stepped forward, historically, what people did is get back to work rather than follow up.

  • 13:17:51

    NNAMDIOnto the telephone. Here is Steve in Washington, D.C. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:17:56

    STEVEGood afternoon. A more interesting parallel I think I'd like to see drawn is the parallel between these coaches and the Catholic priest who have been abusing boys for years now and the cover-up that went along with that. And the second question is, what religion were these coaches in and what role did their churches or the model that the Catholic church provided to them play in their internal, mental, ethical system?

  • 13:18:24

    NNAMDII'm glad I don't have to answer that, Howard.

  • 13:18:27

    ROSSWell, in terms of the second question, I would say that the second part of the question, I'll get back to the first in a moment, I would say that my experience has been that there are people who engage aberrant behavior in every faith that exists on the planet and you know, I'm certainly not of the mind that because one is Catholic, for example, means that they're more likely to do this. I think that when you look at the case of what apparently happened with Catholic -- with the Catholic priests and in some cases we know, you know, people have been convicted of crimes.

  • 13:18:54

    ROSSThere is this sense of a cover-up that goes in circumstances like this. And one of the challenges with circumstances like we're dealing with is that the kind of aberrant behavior we're talking about, particular things like pedophilia, are things that are, you know, fundamentally pathological. These -- you know, people who engage in this behavior, by the very fact that they're engaging in it, are sick. Now, I'm not saying -- I want to be really clear. I'm not suggesting in any way that that mitigates people's, you know, accountability for what they're doing nor that they shouldn't be, you know, taken to every measure of the law for doing it.

  • 13:19:24

    ROSSBut nonetheless, they're sick in the same sense that a rabid dog can kill you, but the rabid dog is sick. And so often, the way that sickness shows up is that it's in a person who is completely normal or even extremely moral. So one of the things, for example, and looking at the Sandusky case that's been interesting to me, is people are talking about how the fact that he created this not-for-profit to serve children as a way to meet children, as the way that sort of -- mostly, it's been spun in media. But in fact, that may not have been what's going on at all.

  • 13:19:53

    ROSSIt may be that he's creating this non-profit, may be more of a reflection of his own inner conflict, the conflict between this part of himself that he, quote, "couldn't control" or kept doing these things that he knew at some level were aberrant and another part of himself that turns right around and tries to correct it in a certain way by creating this charity effort.

  • 13:20:12

    ROSSAnd that's one of the challenges that we have in these circumstances. I think where Catholic priests are concerned very similarly is that a lot of these people were people who were seen as upstanding moral leaders. And so this thing happens and it just doesn't compute. And so one way that people deal with things that don't compute is by washing their hands of it. Now, I'm not saying it's the right way but I'm saying that's the way the psychology of it can tend to happen sometimes.

  • 13:20:33

    NNAMDISteve, thank you for your call. A lot of people at Penn State are probably questioning their actions, wondering what they could or should have done differently. When does personal responsibility for pursuing a solution take precedence over protocol?

  • 13:20:47

    ROSSWell, I think that this is what we found and if we look back at the My Lai case in Vietnam or other cases historically we would have -- I would think that we each have our own moral standards and we each make those determinations. We're going to put ourselves at risk perhaps, even perhaps the potential of losing our jobs or being seen as pariahs in our workplace because of something that we're seeing is just wrong. And I think if we historically look at what's happened, you know, throughout history about these things -- I mean, you know that there -- we know that there are a lot of cases where people were parts of entire systems where they knew what was going on was not only wrong, but just as much of an abomination as what we saw in the case of Penn State.

  • 13:21:27

    ROSSOn a societal level, Nazi Germany, you know, all the people who colluded with the Nazis who didn't believe that it was right to take their Jewish neighbors out and throw them in concentration camps or worse, but they went along with it. How many people looked at what we were doing here to Native American Indians or in slavery -- at times of slavery and were repulsed by it and yet closed their eyes?

  • 13:21:45

    ROSSAnd I remember talking to a Holocaust survivor, an extraordinary woman named Alice Kahana (sp?) a number of years ago who participated in the death march when they moved camp prisoners at the end of the war out of the camps. And she talked about how she walked through these villages. And as they walked through the villages they could see people closing their shades because they just didn't want to look. They didn't want to be part of it. So one way of doing it was to look the other way, like the old Sergeant Schultz thing in Hogan's Heroes, I see nothing, right.

  • 13:22:13

    NNAMDII see nothing.

  • 13:22:14

    ROSSAnd so if I can separate myself that I don't have to take responsibility. If I do take responsibility than I need to deal with the ramifications of that responsibility, which can sometimes be serious.

  • 13:22:23

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation with Howard Ross on personal responsibility and power structures taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Have you ever reported an incident to your boss? How was it handled? 800-433-8850 or go to our website and ask a question or make your contribution or comment there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:24:49

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Howard Ross about personal responsibility and power structures. Howard Ross is a diversity consultant and a principal at Cook Ross. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Let's go now to Chris in Fairfax, Va. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:25:09

    CHRISHey, good afternoon, Kojo, and good afternoon, sir. I wanted to thank you for writing the book. However, my question was directed towards the nature of our culture and our society. There's many individuals that find themselves in that predicament. I myself had ended up losing my job for reporting a fraud that was going on with the federal government, which, in fact, the companies that were involved were indicted and are awaiting sentencing currently.

  • 13:25:37

    CHRISBut what my question goes to is how systemic is the problem? How much is it culturally related as opposed to individual values and individual morality?

  • 13:25:45

    ROSSIt's a great question, Chris, and your circumstance -- obviously we haven't gotten into the details of it but your circumstance is exactly the kind of thing that people hear about that has them hesitant about reporting. And so it's challenging I know. You know, I think we do know about human beings and we have all the time a seesaw that we're moving between our individual values and the role that we play in the communities and the cultures that we're a part of. The means of our culture that say this is the way you should behave.

  • 13:26:14

    ROSSAnd this is why Erich Fromm put this many years ago in his famous book "Escape from Freedom," you know, that we have a tendency to want to belong and also to feel safe by going along with -- to get along. And one of the very famous studies about this was conducted by Stanley Milgram, a Yale psychiatrist back in the '60s. He was studying how it was -- really curious, how it was that the Nazi's got good German people to go along with what they were doing.

  • 13:26:39

    ROSSAnd he conducted an experiment that I'm sure a lot of our listeners are familiar with to where he put -- the test subject was a person who was supposed to be administering a test to another person behind the shield and was instructed by the proctor to give the person -- to press a button to give the person an electric shock every time they missed a question. And each time they missed a question they had to turn up the level of the shock. Now the person on the other side of the shield was not actually connected, he was an actor -- or he or she were an actor and they -- but they screamed out when they heard -- when they supposedly were feeling the shock.

  • 13:27:09

    NNAMDIDon't taze me, bro.

  • 13:27:10

    ROSSThat's right. And they kept turning up to the point where on the dial in front of the test subject it said potentially dangerous, potentially fatal. And as the proctor said, it's okay, they signed up. More than two-thirds of the people who participated in tests continued to give the shocks, even though that they knew the button said that they could be actually killing them by doing it. And that is, unfortunately in a lot of cases, the tendency that we have as people.

  • 13:27:34

    ROSSAnd so Chris' question is a really important one to understand. This is not an individual circumstance. It's part of our cultural training.

  • 13:27:40

    NNAMDIWhat happens if the authority figure turns out to be a super authority figure? If you work with someone like Joe Paterno, an iconic figure with a reputation that extends well beyond the workplace, or for an institution where one program or one department is put on a pedestal like Penn State football is, what sort of dynamic does that create?

  • 13:28:03

    ROSSThe greater the gap between our power, influence and status with the person we're talking about, the greater likelihood it is that we're going to question challenging them. So if we see that person as somebody who's admired and everybody is going to support, we're less likely -- particularly when we have individual -- some kind of relationship with them we're less likely to challenge them. If we admire that person we're less likely to challenge them. If we want their admiration of us we're less likely to challenge them. So all of those things are -- it can dramatically impact it.

  • 13:28:34

    NNAMDIHere's Malcolm in Germantown, Md. Malcolm, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:28:40

    MALCOLMWe have instances that tell you how endemic things are. A few years ago, I was in a nursing home where I was abused physically the first evening and I complained and nothing happened. The day nurse I complained to didn't even transmit my complaints upstairs. And then I was charged for services that I never received and items I never received. And I was told by the administrator of the nursing home that if I didn't pay them I would face a 30-day eviction. I told them to go ahead.

  • 13:29:18

    MALCOLMAnd then there were also some other things. When I complained about this at my quality review meeting, they went to my psychiatrist and asked him to find me that I was suffering from antisocial disorder, which the psychiatrist, of course, refused to do after speaking to me for five minutes. And there's another case that happened 30 years ago in the days before we had PCs and things had to be retyped -- had to be actually retyped.

  • 13:29:46

    MALCOLMThere was one secretary who worked very, very badly, who every time she retyped something, it would go out worse. And I was not the only person who had this problem with her. And when I complained, she -- her response was to stop delivering my mail and throw them away. I discovered this once I discovered my mail in her waste basket, complained to my boss. He went -- he complained to human resources. The secretary said this is all because she was black and I didn't like black, at which point human resources turned it around and said that I was the person who has committed a crime and I had to start defending myself.

  • 13:30:30

    NNAMDIYou have to complicate everything even more for us, right, Malcolm? But thank you very much for raising because this can be a very complex issue, Howard.

  • 13:30:37

    ROSSWell, one of the things that Malcolm's pointing out to particularly in regards to the nursing home instance is that the people who are most susceptible, of course, to being trapped in these kinds of circumstances are the people who are the most vulnerable.

  • 13:30:48

    NNAMDII was about to ask, are standards for what you have to report up the chain of command different when your work involves the care of others, say nursing or teaching for that matter?

  • 13:30:56

    ROSSYeah, exactly. I mean, look at older people, children, poor people, people with disabilities. Immigrants today is especially true about -- you know, you look at somebody who's here, an immigrant without documentation. You know, they can't -- you know, they're completely unprotected because if I go forward and say something I'm going to be deported for it. So the more vulnerable people are there -- and, I mean, I believe that when you've got people in the care of others particularly, you know, when you're talking about older people or children, that there is a higher responsibility to be sure that there are codes that require this.

  • 13:31:28

    ROSSI remember years ago -- as you know, Kojo, I started my career as a teacher and a school administrator 30 years ago or more -- actually 40 years ago now. And I remember in those days -- and I assume that there's still -- it's still true that you're required by protective services to report any questionable bruises or marks on a child. And there were a couple of times when I had to do that and I knew very well that the parent would be livid. And I knew that in one case they immediately pulled the child out of the program. They were found to be innocent, but I was required by law to do that.

  • 13:31:58

    ROSSAnd I think that -- I think actually there are times when that's really appropriate. I think that that, in effect, takes people off the hook from personal risk, if they can say, look, the law requires me to do this. I'm not saying I personally doubt you. I'm telling you I have to do what the law requires me to do. And I think sometimes having structure or a codification of it can help people in those kinds of circumstances do things that otherwise they may be torn as to whether or not to do.

  • 13:32:20

    NNAMDIMalcolm, thank you very much for your call.

  • 13:32:22

    ROSSThank you, Malcolm.

  • 13:32:22

    NNAMDIA lot of people want to weigh in on this issue so we'll go immediately to Joyce in Port Ludlow, W.Va. Joyce, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:32:30

    JOYCEActually, it's Port Ludlow, Wash. on the other side of the country.

  • 13:32:34

    NNAMDIThank you very much for that correction, Joyce.

  • 13:32:38

    JOYCEI'm a former professor in the Washington D.C. area and I experienced all too often, particularly doctoral students, young women who were coerced into sexual relationships by professors. And in one egregious case, I went to the university to report it because students complained to me. I complained to the professor and -- but I got stonewalled all the way along.

  • 13:33:10

    JOYCEThe university said to me they could only take action if one of the young women would walk in and file a complaint. And I found that too great of a barrier for the young women because this man was their doctoral chair. This man cosponsored their visa. He owned them in so many ways that they were unwilling to take that risk. And with doctoral students, they can't just quit and run off to another university and take their credit with them. They often have four or five years invested and it's not as easy for them to go to another university.

  • 13:33:52

    JOYCESo it was such a coercive environment and the university's bar of taking action was so high that nothing happened.

  • 13:34:03


  • 13:34:04

    ROSSYeah, I think, Joyce, what you're speaking to is, as I said earlier, one of the -- the depth of the complexity of what we're talking about. You know, in kidnapping they call -- there's a phenomenon they call the Stockholm syndrome, a lot of people have heard about, where the kidnapped victim at some point begins to identify with the kidnapper. And at -- to the same degree that can happen in a circumstance like this.

  • 13:34:25

    ROSSPeople feel uncomfortable about what's happening to them, but the mind finds a way to justify it and sort of turn away from how ghastly it is to not being forced in the case of a circumstance like Joyce is talking about to have sexual relations with somebody in order to keep my doctorate -- stay in the doctorate program, or at least my perception of that. Then somebody comes forward and the quote victim is put between, you know, do I agree with this person who's protecting me or do I -- and face the wrath of the person who still has power.

  • 13:34:54

    ROSSAnd when I look in the background, as you were saying, Joyce, I see that nothing much happens with these complaints anyway. So that makes me even less likely to go along with it. And this is how all of this stuff manifests itself continuously. I mean, I was really disturbed. I was watching -- who is it -- Morning Joe, Mika Brzezinski the other morning was talking after the person who came out -- the woman who came out and accused Herman Cain, the one who was with Gloria Allred.

  • 13:35:20


  • 13:35:20

    ROSSYeah, I forget her -- Bialek, I think is her name. And she said, well, why is she coming out now? Is it, you know, just to get some attention? And, you know, I was thinking to myself of all things for, you know, Mika Brzezinski to not know that maybe she didn't come out before because she felt embarrassed that she let herself be put in that circumstance.

  • 13:35:37

    ROSSI mean, again, I don't know that it happened, but in circumstances like this, I mean, I'm embarrassed to come forward and say, I put myself in that circumstance. I'm already vulnerable looking for a job. I don't want to deal with the fact that maybe he's going to start picking up the phone and calling people and badmouthing me. Do I -- it's really his word against mine anyway. Can I really prove what I'm talking about? And I'm also in shock.

  • 13:35:59

    ROSSAnd so, you know, why do I come out now? Well, because all of a sudden, I realize, wait a minute, I wasn't the only one and, you know, somebody's got to speak out about this. But at the moment, it feels like just getting away from it feels like the safest strategy. And that's unfortunately what happens to a lot of folks.

  • 13:36:13

    NNAMDIAnd there are two women who made the accusations who still have not come forward...

  • 13:36:16

    ROSSExactly right.

  • 13:36:17

    NNAMDI...presumably for some of those same reasons. But, Joyce...

  • 13:36:19

    ROSSAnd of course, Kojo, one last thing and that is that when we look at the way these women are being treated by the media -- not by media, but by being fed into the media by people who are very calculatedly looking at their history and every little -- you can understand why people say that. Do I really want to make myself target of the Herman Cain machine, millions of dollars that's put to smear me so that he can continue to run? You know, that's a real question.

  • 13:36:42

    NNAMDIJoyce, thank you very much for your call. People are often critical of those who have failed to act on disturbing things that they may have seen or heard, but you say that our minds have a pretty amazing ability to block disturbing things out.

  • 13:36:57

    ROSSYes, absolutely. I think that these kinds of circumstances when they come up should be a cautionary tale to all of us. I think that, you know, it's very easy to sit in judgment of somebody like McWhirter, or somebody, you know, like one of these women where -- again, assuming any of these things happened where Cain was concerned, it's easy to sit back and say, well what I would've done was such and such.

  • 13:37:18

    ROSSBut the reality is that study after study shows that what most people would've done is nothing. And that we have the capability in us, whether we like it or not, to put blinders on when we're dealing with things that are uncomfortable. And it starts when we're very young and we're in school and we're playing with a good friend. And then we get into the in group and the people in the in group don't like that friend for some reason or another. And they come up to us in school and we shun them so that we can still be in the in group. I mean, there -- it starts innocently and it just becomes a part of the way we function.

  • 13:37:48

    NNAMDIOn to Bill in Leesburg, Va. Bill, your turn.

  • 13:37:54

    BILLThanks for taking my call, Kojo. I guess I'm wondering what the legal ramifications are for Penn State given the fact that this was not a Penn State organization that -- you know, it's Jerry Sandusky's organization that was I guess using Penn State facilities perhaps. Does that really put them under the gun legally or is it a separate entity and are there disconnects because of that? Thank you for taking my call.

  • 13:38:25

    NNAMDIWell, I know Howard is not technically a lawyer, even though he may have something to say about that. And if you've just been listening to the news, the 20-year head of that organization has just stepped down.

  • 13:38:36

    ROSSYeah, I think you're right, I'm not a lawyer so I'm not speaking about it from the, you know, what the actual eyes. However, I think in a circumstance like this the fact that Penn State continued to let him use their facilities and resources, taking kids to games and the like when they knew that while he was under the employ of Kent State -- I mean, Kent State -- Penn State, things like this had happened makes them clearly culpable for some sense of responsibility in the matter. In a lot of other cases, it might be quite much more separate. But in this case they gave him access to the school, to the facilities, to everything else. So...

  • 13:39:11

    NNAMDIA lot of these cases can be broken down along the lines of who knew what and when. We're seeing that play out in many of the scandals making headlines. Why is establishing a timeline so important?

  • 13:39:25

    ROSSWell, I think that where people's responsibility is concerned that one behavior leads to another. And so if I knew something a long time ago and I allowed him to continue to do this that's different than if I'm just finding out about it now. You know, that I might have been innocent of any knowledge at the point where I allowed certain things to occur.

  • 13:39:46

    ROSSThe other thing is I think is important to recognize about these circumstances is that often in hindsight things that happen are part of a pattern that seem so obvious. But at the time that they're happening as individual circumstances it's not clear that they're part of that pattern. So if we look at things like inappropriate questions or comments that people make along the lines of the things that Herman Cain is accused of -- and I'm not talking so much about the Bialek case when he went to grab her physically, but a question or a comment about the kinds of things that he said to people or purportedly said to people.

  • 13:40:17

    ROSSThose are things that in an individual joke, well, it's maybe a little off color, a little inappropriate. Two individual jokes, well -- five individual jokes, all of a sudden this is a pattern of behavior that says something about the person that's very different than an individual kind of -- and that's why in a lot of the coverage that you see that the third or fourth person coming out is so critical, and it's why where the Anita Hill was concerned that they were so conscious to try not to let the other accusers of Clarence Thomas testify, because having two or three people -- it's very easy to debunk one person. It's not so easy to debunk a group of people.

  • 13:40:52

    NNAMDIAnd speaking of groups, the group of incidents that I'm looking at right now that have some aspect of it related to the notion of timeline and who knew when and what, not only Penn State, but what happened at Georgetown Prep with the priest; the handling of soldiers remains at Dover Air Force Base and who knew what when; the Madoff scandal in which eight SEC employees have been disciplined; there was a worker in Montana fired for reporting child porn; the Rupert Murdoch media empire scandal, 16 employees arrested, numerous executives resigned; the Perkins Psychiatric Hospital, two patients recently murdered at a Maryland maximum security facility; and there were a lot of recent cases in which like the Lululemon murder in which people were alleged to have heard screams from next door and did nothing.

  • 13:41:41

    NNAMDIAll of a sudden all of these happened to be in the news which is one of the reasons why we're having this conversation about Howard Ross about chain of command and personal responsibility. We're going to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line, we'll try to get to your call, but all of the lines are filled. So if you'd like to join the conversation now, go to our website,, send us a tweet @kojoshow, or email to I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:44:08

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Howard Ross. He's a diversity consultant and a principal at Cook Ross, and the author of "Reinventing Diversity." We're talking about personal responsibility and power structures, and it seems that we are living in an era, Howard, where we're really debating whether or not people think the things in which they are not personally involved are none of their business, even though what they may be witnessing or hearing to most of us seems like a horrendous activity, they just somehow feel that well, it's not my responsibility.

  • 13:44:41

    ROSSYeah. Well, I think this is something that in our culture particularly we have to be really careful about, because there is stream in American culture historically, which is, you know, this right to privacy, right to, you know, not have anybody in your business, and when, you know, there are some people who say when you, for example, have a teacher who starts to tell your kids that they should eat in ways that are more healthy, then the parents say that this is a nanny state thing, you know, that the government is getting involved in people's business.

  • 13:45:07

    NNAMDIInterfering in my business.

  • 13:45:08

    ROSSThat's right. Or there are lots of people who believe that child protection laws that say that you shouldn't be able to beat your children gets, you know, I was beaten as a kid, why shouldn't -- is the mindset, you know, that sort of thing. And it's very challenging to say, you know, where is the line between what our core culture responsibility is, our responsibility as a community to each other is, and the individual's right to do things the way they want, and I think that we see in some cases that this provides people that mental tool, if you will, that place where I can turn the off switch on and say, well, I know feeling uncomfortable with this, and I'm afraid to get involved, but you know what, it's not my business anyway, and of course, not my business anyway, has led to ghastly things in our culture.

  • 13:45:50

    NNAMDIGot an email question from Charles. "Kojo, you asked have you ever reported an incident to your boss? What does one do if the boss is the perpetrator? I've been witness to a boss who was the perpetrator of inappropriate actions and he received virtually unbridled support from his bosses." What do you do?

  • 13:46:07

    ROSSIt's very challenging, and, you know, all you can do is to hope that you've got a structure -- to create a structure in your organization where people can go to somebody. Oftentimes, human resources provides that structure and unfortunately, in a lot of cases, if human resources is seen as a toothless part of the organization, then they don't provide a lot of safety.

  • 13:46:27

    ROSSCertainly, you know, one can use legal, you know, legal course of action in cases of things like this, but it's very challenging when a person in authority who you would normally turn to for support is the person who is the source of the problem.

  • 13:46:41

    NNAMDIA lot of people want to weigh in on this. Let's go to Ruthie in Hyattsville, Md. Ruthie, your turn.

  • 13:46:48

    RUTHIEHi, thank you for taking my call, Kojo. I just wanted to point out the similarity I saw when I learned about this between the way rapes are handled on college campus -- rapes of women, and the way, you know, Jerry Sandusky, the thing was just passed up the chain of command rather than having the police called, and as a young woman I have a lot of friends at various universities and colleges around the country who were sexually assaulted and then it was handled internally, or the university tried to handle it internally and sort of discouraged them from calling the police.

  • 13:47:27

    RUTHIEAnd, you know, so when I started reading about this in the news with the children, I just wasn't surprised, whereas going back to talking about having a personal accountability and a personal touch, I went to a small liberal arts campus, and at the beginning of freshman orientation there was a female dean who was sort of motherly, and she met with all of us students and said, I am the person accountable if something happens to you, a sexual assault, I will be there to hold your hand, take you to counseling, take you to the hospital, call the cops if you want, I will do whatever you need us to do, but I will take you seriously, and for a few of my friends who were sexually assaulted on our campus, that made all of the difference just knowing that this was a person who was going to take me seriously and would, you know...

  • 13:48:15

    NNAMDIWell, Ruthie, you made one comment there that I'd like to hear Howard Ross weigh in, because if she said, if you are sexually assaulted, I will call the police if you want. Howard Ross, to what extent does the individual who sees an action have the responsibility if that is a criminal action, or learns of an action if that's a criminal action, decide to alert the police and not make it conditional on whether the victim wants the police alerted or not.

  • 13:48:46

    ROSSWell, I think that it's probably an appropriate thing for somebody in that circumstance to say, because if somebody feels like it can become -- it can be out of their hands how it's handled, they may not come forward.

  • 13:48:58


  • 13:48:59

    ROSSAnd of course, it's left up to the victim in a case like this to, you know, to be the complainant, the victim has to, you know, unless somebody else has witnessed it...

  • 13:49:07


  • 13:49:08

    ROSS...firsthand, and for whatever reason, the victim, you know, may decide not to. Now, I think most people who really know their jobs who are in the job of the -- kind of job that Ruthie was speaking to, this woman, this dean, would probably encourage the person to call the police...

  • 13:49:23

    NNAMDITo make that complaint.

  • 13:49:23 call the appropriate authorities, but I think if you say, I'm gonna call -- if you tell me, I'm gonna call them and it will then be out of your hands, then some people might be hesitate to come forward. But I do think there's something else in what Ruthie is talking about that's important, particularly as it relates to something like Penn State, and what we see happening there, and that is that it's important -- we've talked mostly about the individual identity and how we protect their individual identities and how we protect how we're going to be treated.

  • 13:49:47

    ROSSBut institutions have identities and self-protective mechanisms as well, and so what happens in, in a case like Ruthie's talking about in a school where somebody comes forward and, you know, claims that there's a rape, the school may have a tendency to want to handle it themselves because then it keeps it under their control. They can manage the message. They can be sure that it doesn't get out into media that somebody was raped on such and such a campus and therefore look bad for the campus, and this is one of the dangers that can happen with institutional identity, just like it can happen with self-protection where people are concerned.

  • 13:50:15

    NNAMDIRuthie, thank you very much for your call.

  • 13:50:18

    RUTHIEThank you.

  • 13:50:19

    NNAMDIWe move on to Thomas in Glenmont, Md. Thomas, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:50:25

    THOMASYeah. I think that's very interesting what the gentleman had just said because it's very true that a lot of institutions seem to be more concerned with protecting themselves and protecting their images and -- rather than actual address the social injustice, and it's -- to me it's just very amazing. I used to work for a non-profit organization in Gaithersburg, and the entire organization for as near as I could tell, maybe 10 or 15 years, knew of aspects of corruption that went on within the organization, aspects of grants that were skimmed off from and just various other things that just weren't right.

  • 13:51:08

    THOMASBut because certain people didn't want to chance their jobs, and certain people did not have the courage to come forth, there -- it's almost as though it was a self-supporting type of corruption. And when I was working with this organization, I would voice my opinions to everybody, so I was known as the person not to speak to, and there were a few people within that organization that also had the same sort of views, but they also were very afraid to speak up and say this, you know, the head of the organization is doing this, their system is supporting them and doing this, and each person on down the line was involved in some sort of graft or arm twisting to keep the people beneath them from actually speaking out.

  • 13:51:57

    THOMASAnd this even went to the point of the board of directors were aware of this going on, but they, like your -- the person that's on your show also...

  • 13:52:06

    NNAMDIOh, I'm sure Howard remembers the scandal we had here with the United Way campaign.

  • 13:52:09

    ROSSYes, exactly.

  • 13:52:10

    NNAMDIThat's -- yeah.

  • 13:52:11

    ROSSExactly, yeah.

  • 13:52:12

    THOMASWell, and this is the thing too, is this organization actually is a national organization and they have different divisions within, you know, different areas, and the one that I worked for in Gaithersburg, Md., they -- there was just so many people that knew of what was going on, but they just -- nobody had the courage to speak of it, and even when it initially came to light, just like what you guest was saying that, you know, people were just closing the curtains. They did not want to see what was going on...

  • 13:52:39


  • 13:52:40

    THOMAS...because they were afraid that if they opened the curtains and spoke out, then they would be grabbed and pulled out to the street.

  • 13:52:45

    NNAMDINot only they would be grabbed, but I suspect, Thomas, a lot of people think about the quote unquote "mission" of the organization and how it would be disrupted.

  • 13:52:52

    ROSSWell, I think that, Thomas, what you're speaking to is so important for us to understand, and it's important to understand in a context of how cultures form in organizations. We get these structures of behavior, these normative behaviors, we call them means sometimes of kind of what's normal around here, and if we look at the organizations form, a lot of cases, how we deal with these issues started -- was put into place long before we were ever there.

  • 13:53:16

    ROSSThere's a very famous experiment that was done back in the -- I think 1969, a guy put five Rhesus Monkeys in a cage and put a ladder with a bowl of bananas at the top, and every time one of the monkeys went to climb the ladder, they sprayed all of them with freezing cold water, until at some point if any one of them started to go up there, the other monkeys pulled it down. And then one by one they replaced the other monkey -- replaced monkeys with new monkeys who had never been squirted, and of course as soon as they went in and they started to go up the ladder, the other monkeys pulled them down until finally at some point they had replaced all five monkeys.

  • 13:53:45

    ROSSNone of them had ever been squirted with the water before, but none of them went up the ladder because that's the way we do things around here. And I think that the kind of thing that Thomas is talking about in a culture of an organization, the silence can become the way we handle things around here. We turn the other way, we don't -- we don't deal with things, and somebody new can say, why aren't everybody handling it? Just get back to your job because...

  • 13:54:05

    NNAMDIWell, talk about the other side of that coin, because the moral consequences for a failure to act on a complaint can sometimes be fuzzy, but financial implications are usually pretty clear. What kind of financial fallout can result from improper handling of grievances like this?

  • 13:54:20

    ROSSWell, there's a -- it's a cost benefit analysis between the financial fallout of handling -- having it become public, and those that handle --that fall from not handling, and I think that what we're gonna see in the case of Penn State is a whole series of lawsuits, probably civil lawsuit, probably to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. But of course, at the time when you're hiding things, both individually or collectively, one doesn't think of the fallout of being found, one only thinks of avoiding being found.

  • 13:54:46

    ROSSAnd so somebody's who's got the kind of pathology that has them for example become a pedophile, you know, is most -- most focused on not being found out at the particular time, and similarly, an institution that has things going on at the same level is the same way, how do we hide it.

  • 13:55:00

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Thomas. Here is Mary in Bethesda, Md. Hi, Mary.

  • 13:55:07


  • 13:55:08

    NNAMDIYes, Mary. You're on the air.

  • 13:55:09

    MARYYes. This is perhaps a sideways approach to things, but in a private company once I was involved in the overseeing of financial classifications, and a mink coat was on the business and entertainment classification, and it was actually to a administrator secretary type person, the recipient was. So what I said to the company is, this has to go down on her W2 as income.

  • 13:55:52


  • 13:55:53

    MARYThis is not business and entertainment, this is compensation.

  • 13:55:59


  • 13:56:00

    MARYAnd I just thought I would throw that in as a...

  • 13:56:03

    NNAMDIWell, was that accepted? Was your...

  • 13:56:06

    MARYThey did it, oh, yeah.

  • 13:56:07

    NNAMDIOh, well...

  • 13:56:07

    MARYThey took my advice and did it.

  • 13:56:09

    NNAMDIOh, good.

  • 13:56:09

    MARYBut, I mean, they wouldn't have, I mean...

  • 13:56:12

    NNAMDIWell, I'm glad you brought that up, because I'd like to generalize that Howard. Leadership is important in a time of crisis, but ideally companies avoid disasters in the first place. What should bosses and human resource departments be doing to prevent a situation like any of the debacles we've seen in the news lately?

  • 13:56:29

    ROSSWell, I think there are a number of things. I think first of all, to have structures and systems in place, to have people like Mary who know that it's okay to voice that opinion and to give people advice around that -- and that there's no retribution for that, and this is critically important. This is why in civil rights legislation -- I mean, excuse me, sexual harassment legislation, they now protect people from retribution for making claims as well as other things because unless you have a protection from retribution for bringing a claim forward, even if it's found that the claim is not substantiated by legal review, that what we need to do is to reward people for and to make it clear that people are safe when they bring their concerns forward so that those concerns could be dealt with in a constructive way.

  • 13:57:11

    ROSSThe other piece of that is to be sure to protect the rights of the person who is being accused so that -- because just an understanding that being accused of something like this can be just as bad as being convicted of it if it's not handled the right way in terms of the publicity of it. And third, to finally have a safe place to go in the organization, and it's best that not just be one individual person because, as we said before, if that person is involved in the problem, then you're trapped.

  • 13:57:36

    NNAMDIMary, thank you very much for your call. Howard Ross is a diversity consultant and a principal at Cook Ross. His latest book is called "Reinventing Diversity," and where can I go tonight to hang out with you?

  • 13:57:46

    ROSSThat's at Hager Sharp at 1030 15th Street Northwest, Suite 600E, and tell people they can call our office at 301-565-4035 if they'd like to come.

  • 13:57:56

    NNAMDIHoward Ross, thank you so much for joining us. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, and Tayla Burnie with assistance from Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. The managing producer is Diane Vogel. Our engineer is Timmy Olmstead. A.C. Valdez is on the phones. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives, CDs, and free transcripts are available at our website Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

Related Links

Topics + Tags


comments powered by Disqus
Most Recent Shows

The Politics Hour — March 16, 2018

Friday, Mar 16 2018Maryland Senator Ben Cardin joins us to talk about the youth movement against gun violence, Russian sanctions, and more. D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh shares her thoughts on relief for high water bills and news that D.C. Public Schools is taking over an all girls charter school.