5 Ways Maintain Personal Integrity When Your Company Blows It Publicly

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Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Reputation is a funny thing – it takes a lifetime to build and can be destroyed in the blink of an eye.

I was recently saddened to hear about a grading scandal at the business school I graduated from over 10 years ago.  This comes on the heels of monumental scandals at Penn State University and major corporate scandals in past years at companies like Enron, Tyco and Adelphia Communications.  We also know that unethical behavior is not just the domain of the private sector — a friend recently related a situation at work regarding questionable requests where he works for a major municipal agency. 

Was I more than a little embarrassed when the grades scandal came to light?  For sure.  Were my accomplishments and degree diminished by the scandal at my alma mater?  For those who know me personally and professionally the answer is a resounding “NO.”   Just as colleagues who worked at Enron in the period before the unethical behavior occurred, I was able to hold my head up and proudly tell people where I got my MBA and the experiences I had there because my personal behavior would never be confused with the circumstances splashed across the newspaper.

So how do we maintain our personal reputations and uphold personal ethical standards when those values may not be rewarded in the workplace?  I have tried to manage my career and ethical dilemmas using some simple guidelines and continue to be proud of my actions (or inactions) over the many years. Here are 5 tips for your professional life to maintain your reputation when your organization and co-workers may not share your values.  

➤ Apply The New York Times Rule

With all apologies to your local newspaper and revealing my preferred reading, conduct yourself as if your actions will be reported on the front page of the newspaper.  This was emphasized to me as a young engineer when I took a job with a small firm whose principals lived that credo and promoted an ethical behavior.  Despite your best efforts, there may be some in your office who are willing to cut corners or fudge the truth to get ahead.  Invariably, they will be found out.  Keep them at arm’s length so their actions do not reflect negatively on you.

➤ Practice Respectful Deference

If you have a congenial relationship with your supervisor – which hopefully means a common attitude toward workplace ethics – then use your boss as a resource if a request comes your way that makes you feel uncomfortable.  As many companies go to matrix structures, work requests come from multiple departments and that supervisor who you align with may not be assigning you that project.  Find the confidant in the company with whom you can discuss your concerns and perhaps provide you with some guidance.

➤ Walk the Walk AND Talk the Talk

Your words are just as important as your actions and whether it is related to a work task or personal item it is critical to be aware of what you say and how you say it.  What you identify as ethical behavior may not align with your co-workers’ or supervisor’s.  Ethics extends beyond the black and white of legality and generally includes an individual’s sense of right and wrong.  Is it ethical to inject your personal feelings into a work discussion?  Sometimes yes and sometimes no.  Either way, be cautious of your words. 

➤ Remember that Past Results Do Not Guarantee Future Performance

We have all heard this phrase when it comes to potential investments.  Consider your ethics as an investment in yourself but be aware that laws, regulations, and rules can change without warning.  The result of all those past scandals has been a greater emphasis on training and employee awareness.  Many publicly-traded companies mandate annual ethics training for all employees from the administrative assistant to the CEO.  Make sure you are up to date on your own training and if you still have some gray areas – seek out the Ethics Officer for clarification.

➤ If the Heat Gets Too Intense….Get Out of that Kitchen

The time may come when you look yourself in the mirror and decide that you can no longer work in an organization that violates your personal ethical code.  No matter how ethical a company, there will always be some employees looking for “creative” approaches or “out of the box” thinking that may infringe on the company’s and your ethics.  Do your research and find the companies that promote an environment that aligns with your own sensibilities.  Go into your search with your eyes open – your own company may be considered ethical for its overall corporate attitudes.  

I am proud of my choices and hope these tips help you hold your head held high and remain true to your convictions.