Are you a snitch? (The Ethics of Tolerance)

Growing up, my friends and I would swear to each other not to tell our parents, teachers, police or someone in authority on a questionable deed one of us had committed. Anyone who told on their buddy was a snitch, a tattle-tale, a rat, or an informer. From the playgrounds and streets of our youth, many of us learn that the ethics of tolerance means not telling on a friend for what he or she has done wrong.

That ethic, “don’t snitch!” still pervades a part of our mindset even in our most powerful and sacred institutions. We tend to tolerate WHAT we know should not be tolerated based on WHO the person is, especially a friend. Because of cowardice, sophisticated rationalizations or the artful ignorance of plausible deniability, we avoid doing the right thing and fail to recognize our cooperation in something bad.

When I was a cadet at West Point, a harsh and unforgiving honor code was required of us: “A cadet will not lie, cheat or steal nor tolerate those who do.” The last part of the code was the most difficult to follow. I can remember cadets being expelled from the Academy for an honor violation in which their moral failing was, simply, tolerating the moral failings of others. One of my daughters, a graduate of the Coast Guard Academy, told me the standards remain tough. She lost classmates to honor violations mostly related to tolerating lies or deceptions by other cadets.

During the ethics education programs we conduct for students at top MBA programs in the country, I tell a personal story about tolerance and ask the session participants to assess my conduct at the time. The story goes like this: As a young infantry lieutenant, I became aware that another officer in my unit, Ted—also a graduate from West Point but a year ahead of me—was fraternizing with a female soldier in the enlisted ranks. Concerned, I confronted Ted and told him I knew about the relationship and that he had to stop it. Ted mockingly told me to “grow-up, we’re not at the Academy anymore!” He insisted the relationship was consensual and, besides, he said, “nobody is getting hurt.”

A week later I confronted Ted again, this time telling him to end his contact with the female soldier or I would have to report him. Ted was defiant and threatened me if I dared to “snitch” on a fellow lieutenant. A few more days passed but Ted continued fraternizing, so I reported him to my commander, a highly decorated Vietnam combat veteran who earned his commission from the officer candidate program (OCS, not the Academy). Then, pausing for a moment in my story, I ask participants to reflect on this question: What do you think my commander said to me?

Usually three responses are offered in the following order of frequency. First, “he got mad at you because you ratted out a fellow officer.” The second response: “He congratulated you on reporting Ted.” But only the third group gets it right, picking up on the key flaw in my reasoning and conduct: “He rebuked you for not reporting the violation immediately.”

If Ted had stopped fraternizing, would that have ended the wrong-doing? In reality, I had tolerated Ted’s behavior by believing if I could get him to stop fraternizing, then I had done my duty. My commander taught me an important lesson: real professional ethics are even more demanding than the rigorous standards of the honor code at West Point.

Today, an incorrect understanding of tolerance continues to confuse our thinking. Well-intentioned diversity programs often fail to distinguish between the WHO and the WHAT of tolerance. We should tolerate reasonable differences among peoples. But ethics also depends upon an understanding of what is universally just. We can never have too much justice so long as the appropriate level of mercy is applied (as my commander demonstrated toward me); but we can certainly have too much tolerance. We should judge WHAT a person does, not WHO they are.

The moral life obligates us to report wrong-doing or harm against our colleagues, customers, shareholders, suppliers or the community. Your organization’s ethics are affected by the members’ tolerance for misconduct.
Below, please take our quick and anonymous poll about the ethics of tolerance. And remember the old adage: what you tolerate … you condone.

Peter DeMarco is the founder and president of Priority Thinking® and EthicsPoll™. He is an author, speaker, executive coach and ethics educator with 30+ years of experience in leadership development. For more information on Peter’s writing and speaking—including his forthcoming book—visit his website.