· 2 min read · Features

What business can learn from sporting scandals


Recent sporting scandals are reflective of immorality in human behaviour more generally

In the 1942 film Casablanca, corrupt police captain Renault issues an order to close Rick’s café, and is challenged as to why. “I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” he says, just as a croupier emerges to hand him his illegal winnings. Immoral conduct cannot exist in a vacuum, and it is time to reflect what the current scandals in sport mean for human behaviour in business more generally.

With still only half the report by the World Anti-Doping Agency published, it is too early to say what the full repercussions of allegations of widespread doping and state-sponsored corruption in Russian track and field athletics will be, but we do know that this is not going to be a smooth ride.

Sebastian Coe, newly installed as president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), has a huge task on his hands. As he has been an IAAF insider for many years, he must avoid the double-standards of captain Renault and achieve real reform. A blind eye won’t see what must change.

As all sides begin to engage in damage limitation or counter-accusation, is sport a special case or are there lessons about personal development for HR professionals? I’m sure there will be warnings here for everyone with responsibility in management, and they may turn out to be profound.

We already know these types of ethical problems are not peculiar to athletics. The crisis at IAAF has come hot on the heels of recent controversies at some of the world’s richest sporting governing bodies, mostly notably football’s FIFA, the International Cycling Union, and the International Olympic Committee.

We can learn from this. The lengths organisations and even countries will go to indicate a loss of ethical direction. As I see it, there are three things that can distort any businessperson’s moral compass:

1. Money for money’s sake

Competitive games have long played an important role in social cohesion, but most international sports have now lost their economic innocence. Globalised television and internet create the reach, product sponsorship creates the reward, and big business floods the broadcasters and governing bodies with money without imposing governance and transparency.

2. ‘Small p’ politics

When financial reward is not balanced by accountability the high stakes can force people to believe in preserving what they have, whatever the cost to others. The say power corrupts, so absolute power exercised behind closed doors corrupts absolutely in secret.

3. Hubris

The first two are cultural, but this one you can do something about. Hubris is what forces you to believe you're vital – that if you weren't there things would grind to a halt. It’s not a matter of ditching a strong ego or ambition; it’s about a fundamental loss of perspective on what matters in life. The antidote to hubris is the humility of choosing service over self-interest, but for that you need certain contextual pieces of the puzzle to be present. This is where HR directors are vital for governance.

Chris Dalton is associate professor of management learning at the University of Reading's Henley Business School