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‘Tell me about the time you cheated’

This story comes from my compliance class. It’s the most powerful compliance lesson I taught.

“Tell me about a time when you cheated.”

I created a google doc where they could anonymously share a one-paragraph version of their story (with the caveat that it should not come from law school or undergrad).

To help them get comfortable, I began by sharing my own story.  Eighth grade algebra. I was unprepared for the quiz, and the class genius sat next to me. Without premeditation, we spontaneously devised a hand signal scheme. I told my students that I remembered almost nothing from junior high, but I remembered that incident like it was yesterday. I still felt horrible about it. And I had not seen or heard from that student in 35 years.

Then came the student responses on the google doc. And they would teach me three lessons.

Lesson number one: Everybody has a story.  Everybody.

Some came from academics. Some from sports.  Some from service organizations. Some even came from personal relationships. But every single one of these stories was compelling and heartfelt. And everybody seemingly wanted to share. It helped us all see that compliance isn’t just about the bad apples. It’s about ordinary people, facing temptations that, absent controls, will induce them to make decisions they may regret for years. Or decades.

Lesson number two: Compliance is intuitive.

We reviewed everyone’s stories in class, and distilled the lessons. In an hour’s time we managed to discover for ourselves so many bedrock principles of compliance. Here are the two lists we wrote out, based on our own stories, having not yet read anything at all about compliance:

Look at that. We did it in an hour. They taught themselves compliance.

Lesson number three: it’s never too late to remediate.

After sharing my story with the class, I felt awful.  I remembered it so vividly, using my social capital to pressure the nerdy kid, seeing him compromise his own ethical principles to gain acceptance. I felt ashamed. So I googled a name I had probably not written out in 35 years.  Ah, the wonders of Facebook — turns out he married a Scot and was working in Edinburgh. And it turned out I already had a trip to Scotland planned for the following summer.

My former classmate and I sat in a cafe in Edinburgh, having not communicated or laid eyes on each other in 35 years.

He at first claimed not to remember the cheating episode.  But I didn’t believe him.  As our breakfast went on, it all came out. He could replicate the hand signals, to this day. And he said, “I remembered doing it so I could get accepted by the cool kids.” This crushed me.

I apologized to him. And he forgave me.

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