September 5th, 2013
Jim Thomas

David Ratcliff, former President and CEO of the Southern Company, was the speaker at a breakfast meeting in Atlanta in 2008. The title of his talk was “The Integrity Problem in Corporate America.” In his remarks, he encouraged use of the smell test. Speaking metaphorically, he said it was his experience that when one smells smoke somewhere something is burning. Hence, said he, apply the smell test.

 Ratcliff is not alone. Professionals, managers,  and others assess questionable events by asking, “Will it pass the smell test?”

 The smell test is a useful tool for encouraging performance with integrity. You will find numerous definitions of it. At Alliance for Integrity, LLC we say it consists of certain simple but piercing interrogatories. One directs them at circumstances and  transactions that on the surface appear  inappropriate, however slight. Or in Mr. Ratcliff”s words, “Do we see or smell smoke?”

The smell test inquiries:

  •  How would it play if we read an account of it in print or broadcast media?
  • How would we feel in describing the matter to a disinterested party, spouse, or friend?
  • Laws, rules, regulations, policies aside—does it violate our general concepts of right or good?
  • Is fairness diminished?
  • What is the potential, if any, of causing harm?
  • Does the rule of unintended consequences have application?
  • Does the matter in question withstand moral scrutiny?

 A major strength of the smell test it that it activates how others judge the situation as well as  the parties involved.

A case in point:

 On August 11, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a front page story regarding  Fulton County Tax Commissioner, Arthur Ferdinand, who collected tax-lien fees on top of his substantial salary. The paper reported the Commissioner had found a way to collect a 50-cent fee on each and every paid-off lien, thereby adding tens of thousands of dollar to an annual salary of $368,000, the highest of any public official in the State of Georgia.

 The Commissioner’s actions are authorized and legal under a statute that has remained on the books since the 1930s. The legality, however, did not silence his critics. Said one, “The law may permit what he is doing, but the question is does it pass the smell test?”

 Your opinion? Does the Commissioner’s conduct pass the smell test?

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