An in­sti­tu­tion’s val­ues have to come first

Put in­sti­tu­tion’s val­ues first, even if it means re­veal­ing a trou­bling in­ci­dent

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I’ve spent my ca­reer as a hospi­tal ad­min­is­tra­tor talk­ing about the need for in­sti­tu­tional val­ues, but it’s not al­ways easy to walk the walk, es­pe­cially when a cri­sis erupts and the most ex­pe­di­ent re­sponse is of­ten the un­eth­i­cal one—I learned that the day we lost a corpse.

We had two bod­ies in the morgue of a hospi­tal I pre­vi­ously led; one was go­ing to be taken to a mor­tu­ary for a tra­di­tional funeral, and the other was go­ing to a univer­sity as a do­na­tion to sci­ence. As it turned out, the wrong body went to the univer­sity, which, for­tu­nately, caught the mix-up and re­turned the corpse to our hospi­tal. My risk man­ager gave me the news, re­lieved that nei­ther fam­ily knew what hap­pened. I asked him what he thought we should do, and he promptly re­sponded, “No harm, no foul. No one knows, so let’s leave it that way.”

At first, it seemed he had a valid point. The only thing that hap­pened is a body took a de­tour in a taxi. How­ever, that didn’t seem the ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponse, and it was con­trary to the val­ues of the hospi­tal.

I told him, “If it was your loved one, you wouldn’t have wanted the body to be tak­ing a ride across the state to the univer­sity.” In the end, I de­cided to in­form the fam­ily.

As they say, “No good deed goes un­pun­ished.” They were fu­ri­ous, and even though no harm had been done, they threat­ened lit­i­ga­tion. I re­al­ized that would be a pos­si­bil­ity. Nev­er­the­less, telling the truth was the right thing to do— the nec­es­sary thing to do. Even­tu­ally, the fury died down, and the one ob­vi­ous ben­e­fit was that our in­sti­tu­tion’s val­ues were in­tact be­cause we didn’t re­sort to con­ceal­ing the truth.

The story of the lost corpse even­tu­ally be­came a moral­ity tale at the hospi­tal, a touchstone that helped us de­ter­mine the ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponse in a vex­ing sit­u­a­tion, a cau­tion­ary tale that re­minded us the easy route dur­ing a cri­sis isn’t al­ways the right one.

Painful though the process was, plac­ing our in­sti­tu­tional val­ues first sent a mes­sage to the staff. As a re­sult, peo­ple re­al­ized the ad­min­is­tra­tion took val­ues se­ri­ously and that they were expected to do the same.

We all talk about val­ues, but do we prac­tice them or are they some­thing nice for the hu­man re­sources depart­ment to hand out to new em­ploy­ees to sweeten the com­pany im­age?

With so many peo­ple—from ra­dio talk show hosts to pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates, from preach­ers to teach­ers—clam­or­ing about val­ues and the dif­fer­ence be­tween right and wrong, why do we choose wrong so con­sis­tently? Three out of four Amer­i­cans say our coun­try’s moral com­pass is pointed in the wrong di­rec­tion, and ad­dress­ing this cri­sis of val­ues won’t be easy.

A re­cent poll by the Marist In­sti­tute for Pub­lic Opin­ion con­cluded that “more than 7 in 10 Amer­i­cans be­lieve politi­cians and the fed­eral gov­ern­ment are tak­ing the na­tion morally down the wrong path.”

The worst of­fend­ers, ac­cord­ing to the re­search, are politi­cians, the gov­ern­ment, the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try, the news me­dia, busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives and pro­fes­sional ath­letes who, the pub­lic be­lieves, are mov­ing the moral com- pass the wrong way. And while hospi­tal ad­min­is­tra­tors weren’t part of the poll, al­most half of those sur­veyed said doc­tors were mov­ing the coun­try in the right di­rec­tion.

As far as eth­i­cal con­duct is con­cerned, 1 per­son in 10 thinks cor­po­rate Amer­ica and Wall Street ex­ec­u­tives demon­strate in­tegrity in their pro­fes­sions. The only group to rank lower is politi­cians.

Busi­ness lead­ers, 9 in 10 Amer­i­cans be­lieve, make their de­ci­sions based on cri­te­ria such as ca­reer ad­vance­ment, gain­ing a com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage, fi­nan­cial gain and profit. In ad­di­tion, 63% give cor­po­rate Amer­ica a fail­ing grade when it comes to hon­esty and eth­i­cal con­duct.

On count­less oc­ca­sions, I’ve been in­volved in dis­cus­sions about the im­por­tance of val­ues with col­leagues and co­work­ers, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing those sit­u­a­tions when the temp­ta­tion to act dis­hon­or­ably seems de­cep­tively easy for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons: It’s ex­pe­di­ent. Ev­ery­one is do­ing it. The cul­ture en­cour­ages it. Or peo­ple at the top of some in­sti­tu­tions put prof­its and suc­cess be­fore val­ues.

Those are hard dis­cus­sions to have, but they are dis­cus­sions we must have be­cause val­ues need to take pri­or­ity over other con­sid­er­a­tions, in­clud­ing the profit mo­tive and suc­cess.

As part of our cam­paign to in­still a cul­ture of val­ues at Bridge­port Hospi­tal, ev­ery­one has the com­pany val­ues on their ID card. We dis­cuss them, we strive to prac­tice them and spread them—ex­cel­lence, cour­tesy, par­tic­i­pa­tion, hon­esty, ef­fi­ciency and im­age.

Mak­ing val­ues an in­te­gral part of any cul­ture is the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the CEO. If he or she doesn’t take that role se­ri­ously, or worse, pays lip ser­vice but acts con­trary to the val­ues, it can pol­lute a com­pany and cre­ate a cor­ro­sive cyn­i­cism that af­fects the en­tire staff. And very of­ten, liv­ing ac­cord­ing to com­pany val­ues means mak­ing painful de­ci­sions.

Mak­ing val­ues an in­te­gral part of any

cul­ture is the CEO’s re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Wil­liam Jen­nings is pres­i­dent and CEO of Bridge­port (Conn.)

Hospi­tal and ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of Yale New Haven

Health Sys­tem.

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