In my last article about CFI’s disastrous communications in the recent sexual harassment case, I said there was a second thing about this case that disturbed me that I would write about next: something about the legal and corporate culture at CFI. I hinted at this again when I said “I’m told [the harasser] was punished somehow but no one can talk about how” to which I added that “this is a serious problem I will be taking on in my next post about this matter.”
This is that post.
Conveniently, a commenter sussed what I was referring to and spelled it out well enough that I can just quote them here. As David Janes explains:
Depending on labor law in New York, they may or may not be able to share the results of an employee disciplinary process with anyone other than the employee being disciplined and the supervisor(s) involved.
This is not a defense of CFI by the way – just that in my experience it has become nearly impossible to publicly share any part of an employee’s work experience with the outside world other than their dates of employment. It’s one reason the reference process during hiring has become nearly farcical. You spend a lot of time playing telephone tag for a 15 second confirmation of the hiring and termination dates.
To which I replied:
I am aware of this. And it is something that disturbs me deeply. I’m going to blog about the fundamental and disastrous injustice of such a law soon. It shouldn’t be hard to realize why that law makes every nonprofit organization untrustworthy (against their will even, which is even more unjust) and essentially would be the Catholic Church’s wet dream (I mean, not only being legally allowed to conceal unethical behavior from the public, but being legally required to…how brilliantly evil).
Now I will explain what I meant.
I will assume from here on that I have been correctly informed regarding New York labor law (by multiple sources so far), and that it really is this draconian in silencing companies from disclosing unethical behavior in its own ranks. Any of my following conclusions could change if that is not the case. (So if anyone knows otherwise, please inform us in comments.)
The Evil in General (Why CFI Should Be Doing Something About This)
I’ll start with the broadest implications.
(1) If I cannot disclose unethical behavior of an employee (or how it was dealt with, which is an important measure of its severity), and that person applies for a job elsewhere, and their boss calls me to ask if they can trust them as an employee, I cannot tell them. They could have been one of the most awful, sleazy, dishonest, unethical people ever to skirt just this side of the law, and I cannot tell them.
How is this any different from the Catholic Church moving pedophile priests around and not informing their new parishes? It may differ in the one single element that maybe (possibly) they could have been convicted of a crime and maybe (possibly) then the employer could mention that (as then it would be a public record). But not all unethical behavior is criminal, and even when it is, it can rarely come to trial (and thus rarely becomes a public record). This case in particular: if someone is applying to work for me, and they have an established record of sexual harassment, surely I should be told this.
A law that not only permits his past employer to conceal this from me, but actually requires his past employer to conceal this from me, is indeed the Catholic Church’s wet dream. Why CFI would not be openly denouncing the injustice of this law and calling for lobbying to repeal it is beyond me. They would do so if the Catholic Church were using it to hide pedophile priests (as obviously they could: sexual harassment of children that never went to trial, perhaps for lack of sufficient evidence to guarantee a conviction but with sufficient evidence to rightly worry anyone, would be covered by the law!). So why aren’t they denouncing it now?
Why even bother giving references when applying for a job, when past employers can’t tell you anything? Do we want to live in a world where this is the case? I, for one, do not. Such a law only protects liars, thieves, bullies, frauds, and victimizers. From their future victims no less. It also protects incompetence, since one cannot even tell future employers that an applicant was repeatedly disciplined for incompetence at exactly the kind of job they are applying to continue.
(2) If I am a nonprofit organization lousy with unethical employees, I am forbidden to tell our donors this. Even though I think the entire organization is rotten to the core with sexual predators and dishonest snakes, and even if I have documented this, to the point of warranting disciplinary action again and again (even if I knew the disciplining was a joke and hardly adequate), I cannot mention it. At all.
Now think about this from the POV of a financial or moral supporter of any nonprofit organization gagged by this law. You cannot know if they have ethical or unethical employees even when there is extensive documented evidence of the latter. Nor can you know if they don’t do anything significant about it or even care. How can you morally support an organization blindly like that? You literally can never know how immoral and unethical its employees have been, even the very employees you may be working directly with and depending on (or asking to speak at events, for example, or trusting with your money, or anything important).
If that doesn’t scare and worry you, you haven’t thought this through.
We cannot trust any nonprofit organization subject to such a law. So why would any nonprofit organization simply comply with it without openly denouncing the injustice of it and fighting for its repeal?
Just imagine that we found out that churches were using this law to not only allow rampant unethical behavior, but to support it by dishing out trivial reprimands every time someone finally complains about it. CFI would be outraged and campaigning openly against the injustice of such a law. Yet now, they are actually hiding behind it, seemingly without complaint.
(3) CFI has stated as a main concern (and I agree it should be) that future complainants need to feel encouraged to come forward when they observe or encounter unethical behavior in fellow employees. But this law prevents such complainants from ever seeing any results whatever from such complaints. How does that help encourage them to come forward? Moreover, if no one can ever see what the consequences are of any particular behavior, how can anyone be dissuaded from that behavior?
Imagine a criminal justice system in which no none ever knows how any convicted criminal was punished. Or even that they were. Such a system would have exactly zero deterrence value. And deterrence is one of the primary utilitarian purposes of punishment–without which there is barely a reason to punish anyone for anything. It can perhaps affect the punished (maybe, but who knows, since we can’t ever see it?), but it can have no positive effect on the society as a whole, except insofar as prison would keep victimizers away from society, but in the arena of employment discipline that’s not an available option–in fact, this law even prevents the utilitarian function of isolating a wrongdoer from future victims, by making it impossible for employers to inform future places of employment (or indeed any potential future victim) that they are sending a wrongdoer their way. (Indeed, it seems like they can’t even warn fellow employees within the same company, or reassure them that it was adequately dealt with.)
Do we really want to live in a world where no one can learn what the consequences of a behavior are, because they are never allowed to see it? How can anyone have confidence in any justice system when no one is ever allowed to see justice done? How can this even be good for our economy? Think about it. Bankers won’t ever see any misbehavior in their ranks punished. Hmmm. I wonder what the social consequences of that might be…
The Evil in Particular (The Questionable Ethics of Ron Lindsay)
All this brings me to disclose a case I was involved in, also involving CFI. It’s nothing as horrible as harassment. It’s relatively minor. But it illustrates my general point. A while ago, I caught Ron Lindsay engaging in unethical behavior and reported it privately to the CFI board of directors. Nothing evident was done. I was not even told (at least in any clear manner) if the matter was discussed, if the behavior was confirmed, or if anything happened as a result of it. When I complained about that, I was told I wasn’t allowed to be told any of that because of this law.
That’s right. You heard me. I was not allowed to be told anything at all that came from reporting unethical behavior to the board. Not even that an investigation had occurred. Much less that it was confirmed. Even less that anything was done about it. I was “unofficially” assured that something had been done (and it was hinted that he was punished somehow…but only hinted, and nothing was said about how, so I have no idea if it was even significant or even occurred).
The unethical behavior I reported occurred just hours after I publicly criticized Lindsay (and at the time just him, not CFI, and in which the worst of what I did was call him an “ignorant blowhard,” two descriptors I then supported with evidence: see What Do Ron Lindsay and an Oklahoma Tornado Have in Common?). Almost immediately the directive came down from Ron Lindsay (in secret) that I was to be blacklisted from ever working for the CFI Institute again (I occasionally work as a contract instructor for their online courses…or at least I did).
This was unethical for a number of reasons:
- It is a paradigmatic example of the abuse of power: using his office not to benefit CFI’s mission or the community it serves, but to pursue purely personal vendettas.
- It is (most ironically for a secularist organization) acting basically like a Pope (with banned lists and excommunications; in secret, no less, which is actually even worse…the Pope at least tells you). Not that I am against such things altogether, since unethical behavior can certainly rise to the level of banning someone from events or employment, but only Popes ban people for being ethical (like, say, voicing honest and important criticisms of the Pope).
- It is a violation of the core principles of academic freedom (and freedom of speech). There can be no academic freedom when we allow an educational institution to interfere with the academic freedom of its teachers by threatening them with dismissal for exercising their free speech ethically and outside the institution (and explicitly not in any way affiliated with it). You have returned to the era of Medieval scholasticism, where ideology, not facts and evidence, decide what teachers are allowed to say. Indeed, if teachers cannot criticize the educational failures of their own institution’s leaders, the quality of the institution rapidly declines (as then it is immune even from criticism and thus never has to do better or even know that it should be doing better).
- It is an example of attempting to silence one’s critics by literally attacking their financial livelihood. For a skeptic’s organization, committed to evidence-based reasoning and the avoidance of fallacious argument (like the ad baculum fallacy), this should be the most embarrassing aspect of this case.
- Finally, it opens him to charges of being a liar. Many people told me that Lindsay couldn’t possibly have done this because he has repeatedly and adamantly spoken out against blacklists and openly opposed the very idea of them. Alas, I have actual documentation, from multiple independent sources, sources of definite reliability, that Lindsay banned me (and yes, it will hold up in court). So it happened. So if he has been telling people he is against blacklists even in principle, while actually using his position at CFI to enforce his own secret blacklists, he is also a liar. And dishonesty is certainly a significant breach of ethics.
Since I only know of my own case, there is no telling how many other people Lindsay has blacklisted and thus denied employment for petty personal reasons, or how many other things he may have been duplicitous about, proclaiming to be against it in public while resorting readily to it in secret. There is no telling how many other instances have occurred in which Lindsay abused his power or engaged in other unethical behavior. Even if he was caught. Because CFI is disallowed from ever telling us. (It’s only worse that as anyone knows, someone caught engaging in unethical behavior has probably done it a lot more times without getting caught.)
Now think this through. If Lindsay applies to some future job, CFI cannot tell his prospective employer that he acted like this, even if that employer asks specifically about whether he has shown strong respect for academic freedom and professional integrity and can set personal vendettas aside and serve the interests of the company instead…in other words, the kind of things an employer needs most to know when deciding whom to hire. A future employer like, say, a university.
To this day Lindsay has never apologized to me for doing this (or even admitted to me that he did it, much less confessed to the public that he did it and apologized to the whole CFI community for this poor judgment and abuse of office). He has not, even to my knowledge, rescinded his blacklisting of me (even though it has been hinted at me that it was nullified by the board, I have been unable to confirm this in any way at all). And that’s where this matter stands.
This does not cast in a good light anything else CFI is doing. When you hear about their handling of the Stollznow harassment case, remember how they handled my case. And be worried.
Conclusion (And This Is Very Important)
What should disturb you about my personal story is not just that all this happened (although it is a little disturbing), but much more so, that this means Lindsay could have engaged in tons of unethical behavior, affecting dozens of people, even tons for which he was caught and disciplined, and we could never know. Because the law forbids CFI from telling us. Us. Their very supporters.
Think about that.
Now ask yourself: Are you going to do something about this?
The most I suppose we could do is get information on exactly what law this is, so we can write letters to the New York State legislature identifying what is wrong with it and asking for its repeal. And since CFI keeps referencing this law at me, they presumably know exactly which law it is, and could launch a web campaign identifying it and calling on its constituents to write those letters and thus lobby their state’s legislature to end this unjust law, a law that only protects victimizers (even from their own future victims), and even makes it impossible for people to know if the charities they support are ethically run. They would do this if the Catholic Church were hiding behind this law. So why shouldn’t they be doing it now?
This law even damages our economy. And legislators might at least listen to that last point. This law, by preventing bad apples, both incompetent and unethical persons, from being identified and labeled so their true economic value can be clear to prospective employers, our economy is necessarily harmed, in much the same way flawed derivatives were allowed to be sold, thus tanking our entire economy (whereas if the flaws in those derivatives were allowed–nay, required–to be disclosed, few would have bought them, which is the actual outcome we should want, not a law that requires such flaws to be concealed when sold).
Imagine, for example, a law that prevented home owners from disclosing failures of structural integrity in the house they are selling…a law, mind you, that doesn’t merely allow them to do that, but actually forces them to do that. This would in effect force them to behave unethically. As this law does. The only difference is that we are talking about employees rather than houses, and direct sales rather than vouching for assets on an open market. But in economic terms, these are not a significant difference. It should be illegal to conceal defects in a product you are putting on the market. Not illegal to disclose them.
This law should be abolished even just from the perspective of the rudiments of justice: we should not be gagged by law and prevented from reporting injustices we know about, especially when they are relevant. If I know an employee engaged in creepy and unethical (but perhaps not quite clearly criminal) behavior toward a child (hello, Catholic Church…or Penn State), and I know that employee is going to continue working with children, am I not ethically bound to report what I know, even if (indeed, especially if) I am his employer? Yet this law prevents me from doing that. It actually makes it illegal for me to do that.
How fucked up is that?
So, please. Do something about this. Ask CFI to identify the faulty law, and whom we can lobby with that information to get it repealed. At the very least. And in the meantime, recognize that you cannot know if CFI (or any business in the State of New York, for-profit or nonprofit; market or hospital; bank or charity) is run ethically or that anyone who has ever worked there is ethical and competent. Because the law forbids them from ever telling you. Even when they know the answer is no.