In case you’ve been stuck on that icebound ship in Antarctica and missed the news: the story broke last week that some of Governor Christie’s aides colluded in a scheme to shut down lanes leading onto the busy George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee, New Jersey to New York City. The plot allegedly was payback to the mayor of Fort Lee who refused to endorse Governor Christie’s re-election. The ensuing traffic jams were legendary.
The shutdown occurred in September 2013 and rumors immediately went around that political shenanigans were involved. But the people who knew the truth apparently lied about what was going on —- even to their boss, Governor Christie, who had a press conference last week to explain the whole mess and to say what he was doing about the misconduct of his staff.
Given Christie’s political stature — he has been among the top names rumored as Republican presidential candidates for 2016 — the scandal of a political retaliation that hurt thousands of citizens has attracted a great deal more attention than usual. But politics aside, the case is a clear lesson in what happens when the ethical climate among a team of people goes horribly awry.
Friends describe Bridget Anne Kelly, the now-fired deputy chief of staff at the heart of the scandal, as a devoted mother of four children, hard working, fun loving. A 1994 graduate of Mt. St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Ms. Kelly’s profile is certainly recognizable to many generations of Catholic school and college alumnae and alumni. While commentators are questioning whether she really orchestrated the bridge lane closings (her infamous email, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” reminds all of us that email is not private!) or is simply a scapegoat for her powerful boss, the question remains whether Ms. Kelly could have, should have, acted differently, perhaps with a stronger sense of ethics instead of playing some rotten political game of dirty tricks.
Trinity’s Honor Code has survived more than a century of changing social attitudes about the whole idea of honor and integrity — in personal life, in public life, in professional life. Sometimes students will complain that Trinity is too strict, that our standards on honor are too oppressive, that we have to get with the times and relent on holding onto what are perceived to be outmoded ideas about honor and integrity.
In fact, ethical behavior never goes out of fashion, and the standards for good moral conduct really do not change over time. Lying, cheating, stealing, harming the community with nasty, insidious behavior —- what’s old fashioned about educating students that these behaviors are just wrong?
Despite Governor Christie’s lengthy press conference, we still do not know why individuals in his employ chose to breach their obligations to the citizens to treat people well and respectfully, and instead, to commit clearly harmful acts against the public. Governor Christie said that Ms. Kelly lied to him so he fired her, and he did not talk to her to find out more about why she did what she did. Terminating the employment of a staffer who lies is a no brainer — deceit must have consequences — but finding out what motivated the behavior seems like something the governor should want to do.
Setting the right tone for ethical conduct at work is one of the most important obligations of any executive —- “tone at the top” is a vitally important factor to ensure consistent ethical conduct. Sure, some people in the workplace or political life will still act against good ethical standards, but a strong climate for ethics helps to keep such instances few.
Pundits will debate Governor Christie’s “tone at the top” all the way up to the GOP nominating convention, and perhaps beyond. Politics aside, however, whatever happened in his office among his staff must be a subject that merits more than dismissal. Something bad happened among Christie’s staff that made them think it was OK to close the traffic lanes. Burning bridges to those acts will not make them go away or improve the ethical climate in the front office. As a matter of serious ethical education and reframing the moral tone of his administration, Governor Christie should carefully examine his own leadership actions as a first step toward setting new ethical directions.