After retiring from her 35-year career as an agent for the Internal Revenue Service, Claudia Hawkins, owner of Ethics Training and Consulting, is clear on the ultimate destructiveness of unethical behavior. She regularly saw people exercising poor financial judgment by cheating on their taxes — either to save money or to do things they desired but lacked the funds to accomplish — and ultimately suffering for their misdeeds. “They thought they wouldn’t get caught, but Murphy’s law is always in place, and you get caught at the worst possible time,” says Hawkins.
Not only do people think it’s not going to happen to them, but they don’t know how they will react to certain kinds of stress if their cheating is uncovered. Hawkins has seen people with hair loss, health problems, desertion by spouses, and, of course, reduced living standards from loss of assets.
Hawkins will present “The Importance of Ethics in Staff Development” on Thursday, July 21, from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. at Burlington Community College’s Mount Laurel campus. Cost: $49. To register, call 609-894-9311 ext. 3027 or go to www.bcc.edu.
Hawkins offers a recent example of a decision by the acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that was ultimately viewed as unethical because its implications were not carefully thought out. The bureau had allowed guns to be sold in quantity so that they could be traced to criminals. But some of these guns made their way into Mexico, and two of them were used in the murder of an American border patrol agent.
The people in charge simply had not asked the kinds of questions that might have generated a more ethical policy: Might this policy be dangerous to United States citizens? If weapons are taken out of the country, how will they be monitored? Are enough people available to ensure the plan’s success? Were employees involved in the decision-making? What will be the likely effects?
To ensure that ethics are part of every workplace, Hawkins has a few suggestions:
Lead by example. Make sure your employees know the values you have for yourself and for your business. “Your employees represent you,” Hawkins says. All it takes is for one person to make one bad decision for your business to go bankrupt. “The reputation you grew or your family grew can be gone in a split second.”
Important values in a business environment, she adds, are trustworthiness, honesty, accountability, responsibility, and a positive relationship with the surrounding community. One way to ensure that these values are honored in your company is to bring together all management employees to write a code of ethics so that everyone is on the same page.
Accentuate the negative. Teach your employees to visualize the potential consequences of unethical behavior. One common action that has important ethical implications is when one person withholds information that could benefit the entire operation.
Suppose a person was asked to work with someone on a project, but preferred to work on another project likely to give him more visibility in the organization and perhaps lead to a raise or a promotion. He might withhold information relevant to the two-person project, leading his co-worker to assume it was not a priority. As a result, a project that the owner views as important to the entire organization might be ignored.
Another behavior that may have long-ranging negative results is when a manager steals an idea from one of her employees and takes it to the owner. The manager may even lie and say the idea developed as part of a group project and hence no individual should get credit. “Now you have a disgruntled employee, because their idea is stolen, and they haven’t gotten the credit they want,” says Hawkins.
Looking into the future, that employee’s financial situation may improve and the person may decide to leave, possibly going to a competitor. “Then he talks about the company and how he was treated,” says Hawkins. “Now the reputation of the business has been questioned.”
Teach your employees how to identify questionable items when they come up. These need to be addressed and resolved quickly so that they do not become newsworthy. Hawkins raises the example of Congressman Anthony Weiner’s recent problems with his questionable online behavior. “As soon as you know you’re caught, don’t start lying; confess it and see if you can overcome it,” says Hawkins. “If someone approaches you, the truth is the right answer.”
Hawkins received her ethics education early on as a preacher’s kid in Darlington, South Carolina. “That’s where I got my first taste of doing the right thing,” she says. Her father was a Baptist minister at the same church for 45 years, but the compensation from the church was not enough to support a family. So her father was also a school principal, and her mother, who had a degree in home economics, taught fifth grade.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Hampton University in Virginia. In 2003 she received an MBA from Philadelphia University, with a focus on marketing. As part of that program, she did several case studies on ethics.
“Philadelphia University has quite a diverse student body,” says Hawkins, “and I got a chance to hear what other cultures think of doing the right thing in the business world.”
Her career as an Internal Revenue Service agent was based primarily in Philadelphia, although her last five years she worked out of the Cherry Hill office. Whereas standard auditors work in the office, revenue agents are field auditors who go out to a business and check the books and the whole operation, a project that could extend to weeks and months.
Hawkins says the job was tough. It required significant recordkeeping, considerable tax knowledge, and excellent interviewing techniques. Before leaving her office she would have to assess where there was the most probability of finding tax adjustments by the organization she would visit. She also had to be able to relate well to the accountant representing the firm, the business owners, and other important staff. After completing her analysis, she presented her findings to the business or organization, and if they disagreed, they could appeal in court.
After retiring in 2008 Hawkins took some time off to figure out what she wanted to do next. She had always wanted to have her own business, and she wanted to do something that helped people. Her original idea was to let new business owners and business students know that in the long term it is best to do the right thing. “Don’t do something for a short-term result because it will eventually affect your revenue and your reputation,” she says. “And how much would you pay for your reputation?”
She went to the Rutgers Small Business Development Center in Camden, because she wanted to do things the right way — to create a good business plan, to make sure the business made sense, and to set it up properly. She decided to do workshops and seminars to teach ethics and also to expand her market niche beyond new owners and business students to any business owners.
Currently she has workshops set up with Burlington County College and is also looking into the nonprofit environment. She is still in the beginning stages and sees that the need is great for ethics training, and she believes that online training is obviously not working. “You have to get into peoples’ faces and let them know ‘this could happen to you’ and ‘do you want your family to see you on the evening news,’” she says. “How do you explain that to your children?”
Her experiences as a revenue agent continually remind her how bad things can get when unethical behavior catches up with a person or a business. She has seen people get caught with fraudulent tax returns just as their daughters are about to get married.
What drives people to these unethical acts that in the end can ruin their lives? “Wanting to have things for your family and for yourself, without sacrificing,” says Hawkins. “But it’s not the American way that everyone is going to have everything they want.”