Retaliation by Traffic Jam? Ethics & Compliance Lessons from Bridgegate

Scandal roils around top aides to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie due to lane closures on the George Washington Bridge to New York City, resulting in four days of debilitating traffic jams. It’s a political issue at its core, but it offers useful takeaways that apply surprisingly well to workplace conduct and ethics and compliance overall.

  1. Retaliation can take many forms, not just the typical ones we tend to think of.  A politician might be suspected of reducing funding for projects in an opponent’s district. In the workplace, classic retaliation would be to fire or demote an employee, targeted for the wrong reasons. But retaliation can be more subtle. Here, high-level officials appointed by the Governor appear to have used four days of intense traffic pain as pay back for a mayor who refused to support Gov. Christie in last fall’s gubernatorial race.  In the workplace, “creative” retaliation can include denying the target employee the opportunity to receive training or even taking action against a person close to the target employee, such as her spouse, significant other or family member—but not the target employee herself.  The key measure is, if it would dissuade a reasonable person from speaking up or asserting his or her rights, it’s likely retaliation.
  2. It all starts and ends with organizational culture. During his press conference, Governor Christie denied prior knowledge of, or any participation in, the traffic scheme. As he acknowledged, however, that doesn’t mean he’s not responsible—just as a CEO cannot simply claim that he or she didn’t know that a sales person, corporate partner or supplier bribed a foreign official to win business and expect the issue to end there. That’s because leaders are responsible for the culture of their organization. “Tone at the top” is one of the most worn-out phrases in the ethics and compliance space, but that doesn’t reduce the importance of the leader’s role. Unless leaders make it abundantly clear that certain behaviors are always unacceptable, regardless of the circumstances—and then reinforce that again and again through their own actions and messages—subordinates and other employees will be free to rationalize their actions as consistent with other organizational objectives. Of course, “tone at the top” is not, in and of itself, sufficient, but it is a critical element of a sound ethical culture.
  3. The biggest risk isn’t always legal liability. Reputational damage often is significantly worse.  Even if Gov. Christie was not directly involved, he has taken a significant reputational hit. In the corporate world, reputational hits to brands can hit revenues, and declining revenues erode shareholder value. History suggests a company’s stock price can take six months or more to recover to its prior level after a hit to the brand. Even after the stock price has reached par, the taint on the brand can last indefinitely (just ask those who have suffered oil spills, have been accused of using child labor or other unfair labor practices, or whose employees were involved in killing civilians while guarding U.S. government personnel abroad).
  4. Derogatory comments based on ethnicity are never a good idea.  The Washington Post reports David Wildstein, alleged to be at the center of the lane closures, commented that "it will be a tough November for this little Serbian” (apparently referring to Fort Lee, N.J., mayor Mark Sokolich) in communications with Gov. Christie’s campaign manager.  While calling someone a “little Serbian” is hardly the foulest of epithets, it clearly is demeaning here. Relying on protected characteristics to describe a person can not only violate an organization’s Code of Conduct or even the law, but also reveal a mindset in which the speaker views the target as an “other” as well as lesser or inferior in some way.  Ultimately, it goes back to culture.  If employees feel free to belittle others based on personal characteristics, then what kind of organization do you have?  What other risks are lurking beneath the surface?
  5. The importance of careful communications.  Whether it’s an email, text message, instant message, Tweet or other social media communication—it can be retrieved.  Employees need to apply the Newspaper (or Internet) Test: If you wouldn’t be proud of your words if they appeared in the newspaper or online, you shouldn’t write or post it.  Period. 

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