Friday, October 29, 2010

confronting with calmness

This past week I had a student in my office who had been accused of cheating. Rather than read that student the riot act and heap multiple consequences on them, I simply asked, "Is this true?" I made sure I kept looking straight into their eyes and watched their reactions closely. Now I know that there are some outstanding "fakers" who can easily keep a straight face while telling a lie, but for the most part I can make a student break and confess the truth. It is in watching for that reaction that will guide the next steps of the discussion. I have always maintained that a difficult conversation can never be held over the phone or email - it needs to be done in person because it is the reaction of the person receiving the message that determines the course of the conversation (BTW - you will need to read to the end of this blog to find out how the student reacted).

From time to time in my career, I have had people walk in my office and accuse others of inappropriate behavior or poor judgement. My inital reaction is to believe the person telling me these things, but I also know that they could be wrong for a variety of reasons. After listening to that person's story, I will normally ask the person's permission to approach the other person (there are times when I will not bother with permission because of the egregious nature of the accusation). For me, it is important to determine the truth of the situation. If what I am being told is true, then the offender needs to be confronted and next steps need to be put into place. If what I am being told in NOT true, then the accuser needs to be confronted and next steps need to be put into place. While I never relish having to "investigate" this type of situation, I do know that in doing so, I have the ability to establish and strengthen a culture of trust and forgiveness.

When confronting a person with a given accusation, I expect several things to happen:
  1. for the person being accused to realize the seriousness of their behavior
  2. for the person to feel sorry for what they have done
  3. for the person to ask forgiveness
  4. for the person to determine how they can restore any relationship that might have been hurt in the process

If this person continues to deny any wrongdoing, I will continue to press for awhile and ask multiple questions to see if I can get at the heart of the matter. As I apply more "law" I am hoping to get at the truth. There have been times when I have not gotten at the truth - and there have been times when it became apparent that the truth was that the accuser had either misinterpreted the action or telling a lie themselves - and now a whole new conversation needed to take place.

Getting at the truth is a delicate balance for those who are in a leadership position. I have always said that it is not the mission of any institution to hunt down and determine everyone who does something wrong - that would take too many resources away from the main mission. However, in order to establish a safe and trusting environment and culture, it is important to get at the truth, especially where people's reputations might be involved.

A few thoughts for those of us who are in a position where we might have to deal with these type of situations:

  • do it quickly - gather the facts and then call that person into the office in a timely manner
  • approach the conversation as "getting at the truth" rather than "getting that person"
  • if the accusation is true, get them to determine how they will make amends and work to restore the relationship
  • if the accusation is not true, bring the accuser into the conversation right away to clear up any misunderstandings - and then deal with the accuser
  • assure both parties that if there is ever any retaliation against the other person you will deal with it immediately - and harshly
  • work for forgiveness and changed behavior
  • document, document, document
  • where possible, share the story so that others understand how the culture of the institution works

And now for the rest of the I confronted this student, they immediately broke down in tears and could not look me in the eye. They admitted to cheating, and kept saying they were sorry. After a few minutes of letting their sorrow sink in, I told them they were forgiven, and that an academic dishonesty form would be filled out and placed in their file. They immediately offered to write a note of apology to the instructor and planned to see the instructor later that day. We had a great discussion on WHY the student decided to cheat, and I believe that their behavior will be different in the future. Unfortunately, not all confrontations turn out that well; however, I left my office knowing I had done work that day to build the culture we want in the College of Business - a culture of academic excellence...a culture of student responsibility...and a culture of forgiveness. All in all, not a bad day for me!

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