Many years ago, I was in a meeting that had a surprising outcome. The effect has stayed with me all these years. In my company at the time, we had the luxury of attending one of the first meetings held in our brand new office building. It was beautiful. The design took full advantage of natural lighting, open spaces, and everyone loved the neutral color scheme. You could still smell the wet paint in the air as we found our way to our seats.
On this particular day, the CEO was leading a discussion and we were thrilled just to have the privilege of hearing him speak. He was a kind man who made everyone he spoke to feel special; like they were the only one in the room. He had a way of making you feel at ease in his presence. He treated everyone with immense respect regardless of their title or position on the org chart. He asked questions that conveyed his sincere interest in your life and then consistently remembered the details even years later. When he spoke, you could tell that he had put much thought into what he said. You always knew you would learn a valuable life lesson and that you would walk away from the experience a better person as a result.
Normally, the CEO would speak to us from the stage; a place he seemed to feel quit comfortable in. However, on this particular day he instructed all of us to move the chairs into a huge circle. He grabbed a chair and sat down with us, joining our circle of colleagues. He sat for a long time, just looking at us, connecting with us. Then he asked, “How many of you would sacrifice your job to do the right thing?”
Without hesitation, I raised my hand. I observed the other people’s faces in the room. Some looked confused. Some squished up their faces and mouthed, “What?” Others just looked at the floor, but no one else raised their hand. Out of nearly 300 people, I was the only person to say I would sacrifice my job to do the right thing. I have to say that I had actually expected everyone in the room to raise their hand. When no one else did, I suddenly realized how naive I had been. Not one other person was willing to lose their job if it meant doing what was right.
The CEO asked people to share why they took that position. It started a huge discussion. One woman stated that she was the sole bread winner in her home and that she couldn’t justify her children’s financial health for idealism. A number of women agreed with her. I said that I was a single mother with no help whatsoever and that I would still be willing to loose my job if my integrity was at stake. I was actually surprised when several people said that I was irresponsible to feel that way because in their opinion I should put my girls before my high standards. I said, “Everything I have ever done has been for my two daughters. I believe that part of my job as a mother is to teach my children to stand up for what you believe in. I’m willing to actually do it and not just talk about it. To me, actions speak louder than words. At the end of the day, I need to be able to look in the mirror and know my integrity is intact.”
Over the course of the next two hours, everyone in the room explained why they would not sacrifice their job to do the right thing. Although the CEO never specifically defined what “the right thing” was, in retrospect I believe it would just be relative to the situation. Can you imagine a scenario where you’d give up your job in order to maintain your integrity? For me, the answer was clearly “Yes.” However, to this day I am more than a little shocked that not one other person in that room felt the same way. I was even more surprised that they would attack me for not caving and giving in to group think.
I realized that my perspective was not the norm. I noticed that I actually felt a little sad on their behalf. What happened in their lives that integrity could become something expendable? When did putting your head down and not rocking the boat become more desirable than standing up for what you believe in? When did the easy path become the chosen road to walk down? When did they decide they would look the other way and pay for it with their integrity? In my mind, losing your integrity would far outweigh the sacrifice of losing a job.
I believe that was a sobering conversation for the CEO to take part in. I won’t pretend I ever understood their perspective. I’m certain they never understood mine. I did however come to the realization that sometimes good people can do bad things simply by being in a state of inaction. Albert Einstein said, “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.”
However, all challenges are merely opportunities waiting for a solution. As a woman, mother, and coworker my heart was heavy. But as a fraud investigator, it made me smile… because I may not always have “THAT” job, but I would certainly always have “A” job.