“As a member of the William and Mary community, I pledge on my honor not to lie, cheat, or steal, either in my academic or personal life.  I understand that such acts violate the Honor Code and undermine the community of trust, of which we are all stewards.”

Those few words constitute the world’s first honor code, established at The College of William and Mary in 1736. Thomas Jefferson regarded it so highly when he attended W&M that he instituted it at the University of Virginia when he founded that school. It has since been adopted by numerous institutions, including (in various forms) at America’s military universities and at the Wooster School, which I was lucky enough to attend for two years.

 

If you’re a regular reader of Switch and Shift, you already ascribe to an internal honor code anyway, because your parents raised you right

 

The short version, the one that I’ve carried with me ever since graduating from W&M over 20 years ago, goes more like this:

Do not lie, cheat, or steal.

And let me tell you, those six words left an impression. While I may not share every detail of my biography (something that in itself can makes me squirm  at times), I’m a really bad liar; so bad, in fact, that I don’t even try. Same with cheating – and we can forget the whole topic of stealing!

Now, you may be saying, “So you’re a boy scout: congratulations. What’s this got to do with my career, or with the way I run my company?” I hear you. But I wonder…

  • I wonder what would happen on Wall Street and in The City if every trader, broker, and investment banker had to take this oath. If they were suspended from work at the first suspicion of impropriety. And if they knew they’d lose their entire careers if found guilty of lying or cheating, even a tiny bit.
  • I wonder what effect this would have on the legal profession if lawyers were put under this same code.
  • Or elected officials. Could you imagine? Do not lie or cheat, or you’re out. What a breath of fresh air that would bring wafting through the halls of Congress, or your state legislature! (I live in Florida. Enough said?)
  • Or Fox News and MSNBC. My guess is, the rhetoric in their coverage might tone down a bit.
  • How about at your company? What if your board of directors adopted this simple, six-word honor code for every employee of the company, including the CEO. “Do not lie, cheat, or steal. Suspicion gets you suspended. Conviction gets you fired.” My guess is, we’d have some openings at the top of the pyramid.

Now, perhaps you agree with me that stealing is a legal issue, and so isn’t necessarily that important to put in your company’s, or your personal, honor code. I’ll leave that up to you. Perhaps you’d add a positive proscription instead, like “Be Fair,” which I’ll post on soon.

What I hope does happen from this post is action on your part. If you just read it and go about your day, well, maybe a change will take place and maybe it won’t – and chances are, if you’re a regular reader of Switch and Shift, you already ascribe to an internal honor code anyway, because your parents raised you right.

If you share it with a friend, or with your entire social network, that’s awesome! Shawn and I are grateful.

But what I hope you do is introduce this at work. Chances are, your company would benefit from an honor code like William and Mary’s: short, simple, clear, and thus simple to live by. Something that will build a culture of honesty, because it is part of daily conversations, because it is printed on your letterhead; because its adherence got your friend a promotion and its violation got you all a new CEO.

What are you going to do with this post? I challenge you to institute an honor code of your own!

 

Art by Christina Antoinette-Neofotistou