Innocence, Guilt and Civilized Society

I want to spend some time talking about the principle “innocent until proven guilty.” There are those who say the principle only applies to criminal proceedings. While I agree that “innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” is a foundation of our criminal justice system, just because the principle is a foundation in criminal courts does not mean that “innocent until proven guilty” is not also a foundational principle in other aspects of our society.

Business and society are based on trust; it is trust that people will do what they say, abide by rules and do what is right. Trust, when described in this way, is really the same thing as “innocent.” We are saying that our leaders, peers and staff are doing the right things for the right reasons. ”Guilty” on the other hand, is the same as saying you don’t trust someone. You believe they have ulterior motives, will lie unless forced to tell the truth and believe in the ends justify the means no matter how bad the means.

When it comes to business, Stephen Covey wrote a great book titled The Speed of Trust, which showed that when people within a company trust each other, the ability to complete projects and provide great service to customers is multiplied exponentially. Trust is founded on the principle of innocent until proven guilty and was something I mentioned time and again to my staff without even realizing it, whether I was leading an accounting policy group or internal audit team. I would tell my team to trust that the person seeking an accounting answer or being audited had the best interest of the company at heart, knew the process and operations of their part of the business better than we did, and was telling the truth until that person proved that they could not be trusted. I realize now I was telling them to believe the person was innocent until proven guilty.

The thing that makes me wonder when people say “innocent until proven guilty” is not a foundational principle of society is that the principle applies equally to both sides. If we say that in society innocent until proven guilty does not apply outside criminal proceedings, then we are saying anyone making a statement about anything (including the “accuser”) is guilty until proven innocent. That means we are saying we don’t believe anything anyone says. In reality, people who say that innocent until proven guilty doesn’t apply outside of criminal proceedings really mean to say that they want to pick and choose who they will apply the principle to and who they won’t. There are many words that are applied to such people – biased, discriminatory, racist – and none of them are positive traits you would like applied to you.

So how do individuals apply the principle of innocent until proven guilty to all sides fairly and equally? They have to look at corroborating facts and evidence and make a decision. This is where the idea that “innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” is limited to criminal proceedings. In society and business, the measurement is “innocent until more likely than not proven guilty.” That means we are making a lot of 51 percent – 49 percent decisions out there and with decisions being made on such a close measure, it is easy for two rational and reasonable people to come to a different decision on which side, innocent or guilty, gets the 51 percent and which gets the 49 percent. The one thing I believe with all my heart is that we can’t say “innocent until proven guilty” applies only in the court of law.

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