This week, in response to the Columbia sex scandal, the US Secret Service put into place ten new rules to govern agent and officer behavior on international trips.

Some see the rules as “closing the barn door after the cows have escaped,” but I see these rules as an appropriate shift in clarifying expectations.

The facts are not all in; the investigation of the agents/officers’ behavior in Columbia continues. We do know 1) the information that has been reported and 2) agents/officers have been fired, relieved of duty, or given the opportunity for early retirement due to their behavior.

What Went Wrong?

The US Secret Service boldly describes the organization’s values and culture on their “join the team” web page. The following statement is powerful:

The United States Secret Service culture is represented through the agency’s five core values: justice, duty, courage, honesty and loyalty. These values, and the Secret Service adage “Worthy of Trust and Confidence,” resonate with each man and woman who has sworn to uphold these principles. Not only do these values foster a culture of success, but they also hold each person to the highest standards of personal and professional integrity.

The most important declaration is that the service holds each person accountable to these high standards. Yet, apparently, 12 agents and officers engaged in heavy drinking and payment to prostitutes in advance of President Obama’s visit to Columbia two weeks ago.

The problem? The standards were an “unwritten code of conduct.” A former agent of eight years, Andrew O’Connell, is quoted in an April 27, 2012 Washington Post article saying, staff were “taught certain principles from day one and throughout our career — acting professionally and ethically and not in a way that embarrasses the service or the president. It’s too bad they have to put it into writing.”

It is unfortunate that widely-held principles that worked for so long now need to be defined more fully. And, it’s the right thing to do.

Formalize Expectations, Then Hold All Accountable

The challenge with “unwritten rules” is that – without consistent observation, coaching, reinforcement, & accountability – they evolve over time. Rather than wait for mis-aligned behavior to occur, we help guide senior leaders to be very specific about the values-aligned behaviors they expect of all employees – including themselves!

The US Secret Service has an opportunity to align ALL agent and officer behavior to conduct their unique responsibilities around the globe in ways that align to the service’s mission, culture, and values. The recent scandal means that the service will be under greater media scrutiny for years to come. I’m hopeful that the leaders of the organization pay attention to the details and 1) celebrate behavior that is in alignment with the new rule and 2) promptly redirect any behavior that is misaligned.

Time will tell.

How well are your organization/team’s values defined in specific, behavioral terms? Are folks held accountable for valued behaviors? Tell us in the comments section below.

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S. Chris Edmonds

S. Chris Edmonds

Chris helps leaders create purposeful, positive, productive work cultures. He's a speaker, author, and executive consultant. He blogs, podcasts, and video casts. He is the author of The Culture Engine and six other books.
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