The Mafia has a saying: “Punish one, teach 100.”  I’m certain this works for criminal enterprise and I’m equally sure it works in corporations as well.  This saying reminds us that what happens to one person teaches many others about the consequences of their behaviour.

We need to be aware of what we’re teaching employees when we deal with misconduct.  Here are some lessons you may inadvertently be giving.

You can get away with all kinds of misbehavior here as long as it isn’t too egregious.

When policies, procedures and rules aren’t followed, does anyone correct the action?  Do you have whistle-blowers or managers who aren’t afraid to confront misbehavior or does everyone let things slip under the rug because it is too uncomfortable to deal with it?  If people see that no one is punished for breaking the rules, they will quickly learn that they can break the rules with impunity as well.  You must ensure that the culture of ethics and compliance becomes normative in your business, so that breaking the rules is dealt with swiftly and with reproach.

You get special treatment if you’re important.   

One of employees’ most commonly expressed frustrations is that people lower in the corporate hierarchy have to follow the rules, while managers and senior executives never seem to get into trouble.  Even worse than that –  in many companies it is common practice to quietly sign a mutual non-disparagement clause as part of a settlement agreement when senior people have been caught breaking the rules. It seems easier than to publicly acknowledge the misdeeds or fire the executive publicly.  Employees see this and it makes them furious.  In cases like this, if your organization doesn’t punish one, 100 will notice and harbor resentment.

Justice is important here, and we take the rules seriously.

Implemented correctly, deterrents are highly effective.  When people can see that the organization is fair but firm, it is easy to decide to act in accordance with the rules.  By appropriately and consistently punishing people who break the rules (whether that’s a simple verbal correction or a termination depending on the seriousness of the breach), you give employees faith that their actions matter and that they will be held accountable for their behavior.

Never forget that whether you choose to punish or not to punish one person, hundreds, if not thousands of others, are learning.

Kristy Grant-Hart the author of the book “How to be a Wildly Effective Compliance Officer”and CEO of Spark Compliance Consulting;; @KristyGrantHart,