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Making values an integral part of any
culture is the CEO's responsibility.
Making values an integral part of any culture is the CEO's responsibility.

The day we lost a corpse

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


By William Jennings
Posted: September 8, 2012 - 12:01 am ET
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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.”

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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 compass 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.

William Jennings, CEO of Bridgeport (Conn.) Hospital
William Jennings is president and CEO of Bridgeport (Conn.) Hospital and executive vice president of Yale New Haven Health System
On countless occasions, I've been involved in discussions about the importance of values with colleagues and co-workers, 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.


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