"Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest."-- Mark Twain
Conduct unbecoming ….
You may have heard this phrase before, perhaps from the clenched teeth of a military JAG officer about the same time you learned that “Crystal” is a perfectly apt response to “Are we clear?”
Throughout my service as a U.S. Army officer, this phrase was constantly refreshed as the highest standard to apply to the official actions of military officers. The complete phrase is contained in Article 133 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ): "Any commissioned officer, cadet, or midshipman who is convicted of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman shall be punished as a court-martial may direct." If you have some difficulty associating an officer of the Armed Forces with being a "gentleman,” it may be that’s because soldiers are more easily are seen as "warriors" while the term "gentleman" is more typically associated with a three-piece suit, courtly manners and a snifter of cognac in hand. Be assured, however, that the U.S. Military takes it very seriously.
Why do I bring this up? Almost every day, I see executives wrestling with the misadventures and ethical shortcomings of a few of their employees and fellow executives (think the General Services Administration or CIA). They witness embarrassing infractions and misguided actions that are unacceptable to them, yet they don’t neatly fit within a “don’t lie, cheat or steal” framework … and there is not a code of conduct in their organizations that prescribes the guidelines of personal responsibility and ethical behavior. In a digital world, these breaches can become even more important when a momentary lapse quickly becomes a public embarrassment.
The vagaries of human behavior are boundless, and because they are equally unpredictable, we struggle to erect the appropriate guardrails to define acceptable conduct. The results are a plethora of vague invocations that rhyme with something that doesn't pass the "smell test", or claiming "I'll know it when I see it". The challenge is that we understand the spirit far better than the letter of a code of conduct.
It’s not that much different than the similarly fuzzy phrase that we debated in my days as a chief financial officer. After negotiating all of the detailed affirmative and negative covenants in a loan document, one final phrase … something like "the bank deems itself insecure" … always appeared as the final covenant that, if broken, opened the door to a loan violation. We spent hours wrangling over the definition of the phrase "deemed insecure", and why the multipage list of covenants was insufficient without that final conundrum.
By now, you can see why phrases like “deemed insecure” and the “smell test” are blood brothers of “conduct unbecoming” can’t you? The UCMJ tries to minimize this uncertainty by defining "conduct unbecoming". It refers, for example, to "action or behavior in an official capacity which, in dishonoring or disgracing the person as an officer, seriously compromises the officer's character as a gentleman...." It also identifies certain moral attributes common to the ideal officer and the perfect gentleman, "a lack of which is indicated by acts of dishonesty, unfair dealing, indecency, indecorum, lawlessness, injustice or cruelty.”
These are high but imprecise standards to be sure. Some of these attributes are obvious … knowingly making a false statement, cheating on an exam or being drunk and disorderly in a public place. Yet, “committing or attempting to commit a crime involving moral turpitude" invokes another equally vague phrase. “Moral turpitude" has many definitions, but it is also struggles to clearly outline the boundaries of acceptable behavior. In general, the phrase includes conduct contrary to community standards of justice, honesty or good morals … and legally, refers more harshly to actions with an inherent quality of "baseless, vileness or depravity with respect to the person's duty to another or to society in general."