Hazing: the dark side of belonging

The recent death of Penn State student Timothy Piazza during a fraternity hazing event is a heartbreaking example of the dark side of belonging.

His death was initially ruled an accident. But a Grand Jury is now calling the student’s death, which followed a night of excessive drinking and fraternity challenges – “the direct result of reckless conduct”.

After initial arraignments in May, the preliminary hearings have been pushed back to June. Eight Beta Theta Pi Fraternity members face charges of involuntary manslaughter, ten more face lesser charges including aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, hazing, and evidence tampering. The Beta Theta Pi Fraternity – which has since been barred from Penn State – is facing charges including involuntary manslaughter and hazing.

Extreme belonging

This is extreme belonging. In hazing, the whole point is to enforce lifelong loyalty, a fealty so deep that it overrides any other codes of belonging. This means pushing people’s individual moral boundaries, and breaking their personal sense of what’s ‘the right thing’, or ‘what we value’.

It shows how strong camaraderie and group-think can be. In tightly-bonded groups, belonging to the perceived ‘code’ can override stated values, rules and personal morals.

The pledging-rituals of US university ‘Greek’ fraternities are legendary. In this instance, after a night pushing new-members into excessive drinking and risky ‘games’, 19 year-old Timothy Piazza ended with a toxic blood-alcohol level, drunkenly fell down a flight of stairs, and incurred visibly very serious injuries. Yet members of the Fraternity didn’t call for help until 12 hours later, having debated how to explain things away and talked down the person who wanted to get him to a hospital, by which point it was too late.

Of the house of people no one felt compelled to help out, speak out, or break the code of silence in support of one of their Fraternity. Perhaps they hadn’t realised the seriousness of his injuries; perhaps they thought he’d wake with a hangover?

The student’s father, Jim Piazza, is direct:

“They killed him,” he said in an interview with CNN, referring to members of Beta Theta Pi who now face charges in the February 4 death of his son.

“They fed him lethal doses of alcohol and they killed him, and then they treated him like a rag doll, like road kill, they slapped him around, threw water on him, one kid punched him.”

When rituals go wrong

You can see the appeal to a young adult to belong to an elite organisation, enticed by the secret handshakes and lucrative alumni network. Members respect the bond of fellowship that provides support, and no doubt a good deal of philanthropic contribution. But the ‘Greek’ fraternities, like other secret societies, rest on a code of silence, loyalty to your fraternity over anything else.

That’s a big commitment: hence the rituals around making your pledge.

‘Hazing’ in some sense happens in many contexts: the joining-rites of military recruits, at school, or new starters at work. As a young apprentice, even 007 – the late Sir Roger Moore – was sent to fetch ‘tins of sprocket holes’.

Widespread lower-level rituals masks the threat – it’s easy to dismiss tragedies as isolated incidents.

But with over 9 million members of Greek fraternities across the US, that’s a large number potentially turning a blind eye to the darker sides.

What happens when rituals go wrong? And how widespread is the impact?

Since 1970, there has been at least one hazing-related death on a college campus each year, not including all the incidents that go unreported due to the secret nature of these organisations. Anecdotal evidence suggests a far higher level of serious incidents than is reported, including suicide or self-harm due to extreme behaviour or exclusion as a result of hazing.

Against the rules – but led by camaraderie and group-think?

Beta Theta Pi Fraternity ‘is proud of its “Beta Firsts:”’ including being the first fraternity to publish its constitution ‘the first non-secret document of its kind among social fraternities’.

Hazing, drinking games, excessive consumption of alcohol, and the use of alcohol in pledge activities, are all explicitly banned. A detailed list of rules is in the updated Risk Management section of the code.

In the intense-bonding of exclusive groups, camaraderie can take over: the survival of the group becomes more important than any individual in it. Group-think causes compliance, without challenge or dissent, and can result in poor decisions with brutal outcomes.

It’s easy to see that demanding a code of compliance, with no question or dissent, and silence around any wrongdoing, can quickly lead to a dark place. In an environment of secrecy, intimidation and deceit become the norm.

What you value is shown in what you do

The intentions of the Fraternity are high. Beta Theta Pi says it’s Mission is ‘to develop men of principle for a principled life’.

But there’s an aching gap between the stated values of the fraternity and the behaviour of members on the evening Timothy Piazza died.

It’s website lists its Values as:

Mutual Assistance – Betas believe that men are mutually obligated to help others in the honorable labors and aspirations of life.

Intellectual Growth – Betas are devoted to continually cultivating their minds, including high standards of academic achievement.

Trust – Betas develop absolute faith and confidence in one another by being true to themselves and others.

Responsible Conduct – Betas choose to act responsibly, weighing the consequences of their actions on themselves and those around them.

Integrity – Betas preserve their character by doing what is morally right and demanding the same from their brothers.

To its credit, the Fraternity acted swiftly and within two weeks of the incident closed down the chapter at Penn State, saying it was

“not in keeping with Beta Theta Pi’s longstanding values of responsible conduct, mutual assistance and integrity. Upon those founding principles, the Fraternity is unequivocal.”

The website expands on recent work, since 1998, which was partly aimed at improving ‘risk management and leadership’.

‘With the Men of Principle initiative, Beta gave new voice to the enduring values of the Fraternity. The Initiative was more than a program; it was a deep inner philosophy that demanded integrity from every chapter and all members of the Fraternity. Today, as it was back in 1839, Beta Theta Pi is a shining example across North America for all that is good and true when men come together in a brotherhood of purpose, friendship and fidelity.’

A code beyond the rule book: ‘what more could we do?’

Despite the fraternity’s work to change the rules around hazing, a sense of belonging goes deeper than any rule book. Tradition and camaraderie provided a stronger code.

The Theta Beta Pi fraternity has since banned Penn State from running a chapter. 

Earlier this month it released a statement – ‘There are no words’ – sharing the anger that ‘Young men in State College betrayed our Fraternity’s teachings, expectations and policies. And for that, we are equally infuriated.’

It offers condolences and shares the grief of the loss of a student. It stressed that this kind of behaviour is against the rules. The letter says the Fraternity is ‘left speechless as to how something like this could happen’.

With some irony: the code of silence seems to have endured beyond the stated values and rules.

What more could it do? Prevent rather than lament. Go further with ‘outing’ (rather than hiding) behaviour that goes against its integrity. Re-educate on what its principles mean. To be credible in its efforts to ‘make Greek societies the paradigm of responsible social behaviour’ the Fraternity must show those principles in action, showing why they matter.

Frame culture through leadership, demonstrate what belonging to Beta Theta Pi means. Is silent tolerance of transgression really part of belonging?

Penn State President Eric Barron said in a statement that Beta Theta Pi was situated on private property and claimed to be a model fraternity. The university has now permanently banned the fraternity from operating on campus. Penn State has also defended itself by emphasising that this behaviour was against the rules.

But the whole point of the society is a code beyond the rule book. The fraternity was supposed to be alcohol-free at Penn State, a result of a suspension eight years ago.

The University felt there was nothing else it could do. Perhaps Penn State could have been more forthright in demonstrating what it valued over and above the fraternities; asserting the role of fraternities, the boundaries of what it would not tolerate, and the consequences for actions like this.

This is a sobering reminder for any organisation wanting to uphold ethics: it’s not enough to have a rule book or to rely on having a code of conduct somewhere on the internet. People will follow the code of their leaders and peers more than the stated rules.

People will do what they perceive as ‘the right thing’ because they want to – because it’s part of belonging. They will follow the example of peers to see ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ . And sometimes the consequences of this can be tragic.

For any organisation, the lesson is: to be careful of what you tolerate. Reinforcement by actions of leaders not just the rules – to establish the practice of ethics. And leadership that ensures candour, that’s essential for ethics to thrive.

Meanwhile, University leaders, fraternities and students must be vigilant and spot these extreme cases of belonging before they become fatal.

For Univeristies, and for any organisation, here’s our ethics challenge:

What behaviour are you tolerating that could be hurting your organisation and its members?
What are the consequences of not addressing this?
OK, how will you start?

Belonging Space is a culture consultancy that helps organisations create a sense of belonging. It sounds simple, but it is hard to pin down. We can see how belonging is helping or harming your business. Talk to us about how to build a culture of ethics and values.