If companies had souls, what might we conclude about the soul of Infosys, given the way it has managed the crisis that arose in the fall of 2010 when Infosys employee Jay Palmer blew the whistle on the rampant visa and tax fraud he observed in the giant Indian IT services provider's U.S. operations? What does Infosys' shameful treatment of this whistleblower, and its handling of the matters that have surfaced as a result of his revelations, say about the spiritual health of the company?
Those questions emerged quite unexpectedly last week during an interview I conducted with Dr. John Izzo, a corporate consultant and author whose most recent book, "Stepping Up: How Taking Responsibility Changes Everything," is all about how each one of us needs to summon the courage to take responsibility for becoming an agent of positive change. No finger-pointing, no standing back and waiting for the other guy to take the lead or to do the right thing. As my interview with Izzo progressed, I couldn't help but think about Palmer. Everything Izzo was talking about is precisely what Palmer has done.
The interview morphed into more of a conversation, one about moral principles and how they manifest themselves in a corporate environment. Izzo had come to the conversation from an especially interesting background. In addition to the advanced degrees he holds in organizational psychology and communications, he also holds a masters degree in theology from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. In fact, Izzo was one of the pioneers in the early '90s of the concept that companies could actually have a "soul" and a deeper purpose, an idea he wrote about in his 1998 book, "Awakening Corporate Soul."
We began talking about the Infosys case, and about how Palmer has been vilified, ostracized and publicly branded as a liar by Infosys. Izzo said there's no doubt that whistleblowers are heroes who often pay a very high personal price:
Think of how whistleblowers might have saved us from some of the worst of what happened in the financial crisis. Think of how a whistleblower might have saved some wealth for innocent people who put their money in Madoff and didn't even know he had it. So whistleblowers must take some of their satisfaction from the higher purpose. But as a culture, I think this is something we really have to look at. It's a profoundly important issue for society, because the whistleblower serves a very positive purpose. I remember one whistleblower case in which the CEO had sent a letter out to the company, saying how disrespectful these whistleblowers had been, and that they had to "keep things in the family." To me, this is so inherently destructive in a corporate culture. This is where leaders bear a tremendous responsibility to create a culture that recognizes that these people are doing a great service. A whistleblower at Lehman might have saved the company. The wealth of shareholders and people's jobs could have been saved. The whistleblower, to me, is the natural evolution of a corporate culture that has squelched dissent. And it almost always results in a crash of some kind, either for the shareholders or for the business. There's no easy advice for whistleblowers, because at the end of the day they're doing a heroic act, and sometimes heroism brings with it sacrifice. Sometimes they're scapegoated in companies, to make it sound like they had done something disloyal when in fact they had done something incredibly loyal to the long-term reputation of the company.
There is, Izzo said, but only if action comes from the top:
As huge a believer as I am in change from the middle and the bottom, in the Enrons of the world, those things never get turned around by front-line people. But these really dark things can cause a leader to have an epiphany. The leader has to take responsibility. He has to say, "It happened on my watch, I'm the CEO, and this is on me," and apologize, and not point fingers or try to blame anybody else. It's a very powerful thing. So I will tell you I have seen that kind of thing happen in a company where a leader has an epiphany, where he says, "You know what? I helped create this culture. I have to undo it, because I was wrong." Imagine how much credibility that leader has with his people. It's the rare leader who can do that, but I have seen it happen. That, I think, is the only hope for a company with a dysfunctional culture.
When you go to bat for something, there may be consequences. I'm saying all this with no cavalier attitude. But what you have to remember, as well, is that sometimes what seems like a crisis to the personality is actually the very thing the soul has been engineering for years.
He's right. Jay Palmer will survive this, and he will emerge from it even stronger and more dedicated to doing the right thing. How Infosys will emerge from it is impossible to say. Its leaders are still fumbling in the dark.