Wednesday, August 6, 2014
A LESSON IN WORKPLACE INTEGRITY
As a baby-boomer, I am sometimes in the honorable situation of being asked to mentor a member of the younger generation. I always go into these partnerships with high expectations for my mentee as well as for myself. The bottom line is, if they are successful, even in a small way, then I feel I have contributed to the greater good. However, there are times when these relationships don’t work out. This tale is for the mentors out there who in their zeal to be helpful may miss the signs of a bad pairing; mentees who do not fulfill their responsibilities in the partnership; and how, in this case, a crow delivered a demonstrative conclusion.
I have been at this executive management, organizational consulting, strategic planning, mentoring thing for more than 40 years. I have been on both sides of the equation: helping people with clear leadership attributes polish their practical skills and helping people who have excellent skill sets enhance their leadership and interpersonal acumen. Even now, I am still surprised and humbled when, from time to time, someone tells me how much I helped him or her in his or her career. However, these good feelings and experience would not be strong enough to salvage this particular situation.
Not long ago while working as a contracted supervisor for a small organization, I hired, and at her request, began to mentor a thirty-something woman. She had been looking for months and had not been able to find a job. Of all the candidates I interviewed, she was clearly the best in terms of skills needed for the position, but it was also clear that she was a bit unpolished when it came to the interpersonal. I decided to take a chance and figured we could work on the latter to help her become a valued and well-rounded employee.
At first, she appeared to an eager student and sought my advice on an almost daily basis. But once she was “in”, this employee became silent and secretive. As the months went by, she aligned herself with others in the organization and even though she was hired to provide staff support to me as well as others, she would only sporadically answer my emails or phone calls. Up to that point, I had just given her the benefit of the doubt, thinking that her new work relationships were a part of her attempt to be savvy, although a bit cutthroat, to solidify her job and move up in the organization. It was clear that she had severed our ties with each other.
Her attitude got even worse when others recognized her as the only one in the organization with her much needed skill set. But soon the whispers began about her tendency toward gossip and her perceived betrayals of coworkers. Her approach to getting ahead in the workplace ignored one of the cornerstones of success: integrity.
There have always been people who scratch for crumbs at the expense of others. There always will be. They have come to believe that continuing on their path without wavering is integrity. By that definition a serial killer has integrity. But I believe the real tenets of workplace integrity have been hijacked and need to be recaptured. One can still be successful and continue to practice the following:
Loyalty: The landscape here has changed for sure. Loyalty to employers was destroyed along with the loss of loyalty to employees. When Ronald Reagan dismantled the air traffic controllers union and employers began to renege on promised employee pensions, the younger generation of workers was left to come up in a “no loyalty” culture. Younger people just do not believe that employers will do what they say they will do and they have a point. But let’s differentiate here between the old employee loyalty, which manifested itself in longevity, and the new loyalty, which is to individuals who help and support you along your path, which may include many jobs. Overlay that with the overuse of social media and the resulting lack of face time with real people in the flesh and you are left with little or no connection to the importance of individual loyalty. Yet people still have the ability to feel individually betrayed and when you do this in the workplace, no matter how good you are at your job, it can be your undoing.
Character: A wise person once said that what people will remember most about you when you leave this earth is your character. If you become known as a person of bad character, you will have a difficult road ahead. Employers have choices and when they check references and get a response that says, “She’s really good, but she’s a pain in the ass”, they may just take a pass. And just because a former employer can’t lawfully provide a reference like that, you have to be mindful that a coworker or a colleague can. You would be surprised what people can find out about you and what people will say. Chances are you are not so special in your area of work that employers will always accept negative character traits that could end up hurting you more than those stupid Facebook postings. And, if you have a job and are displaying these bad character flaws, you could end up losing it. Just think about the now ex-CEO who was recently recorded berating an employee in front of other staffers, and the high level manager whose 10-year mistreatment of employees finally led to dismissal.
Honesty: Let’s face it. No one wants to work with a liar or a person who thinks they can be deceptive when it suits their purposes. You can only play so long before you play yourself out. Manipulating situations for the success of the organization requires a good chess player. Being a good chess player takes experience and time and can be done while being perfectly honest. A liar can’t be trusted and trust is foundational to positive and mutually beneficial relationships. Rather than lie, learn to enjoy the power of silence. Stay away from lying to secure a position or to hurt someone else. It has been, and will continue to be, career suicide.
Respect: The worse thing anyone can do in the workplace is to outwardly disrespect his or her superiors or coworkers. When you disrespect someone, unless they are comatose, they feel it. And it does not feel good. And the more you make people not feel good, the worse it will be for your future. People may not remember what you did at Tick Tock Company in ten years when you need that reference, but they will remember how they felt working with you. Respect costs you nothing so use it freely and genuinely.
Now I realize, that as a baby boomer, my thoughts about workplace integrity may not always match with the younger generation, but I believe that what I have offered here will continue to stand the test of time. I know there are countless examples of “successful” people who lie, cheat and steal, but I choose not to be one of them. I say this because even though the world of work is never without its rough patches, these tenets, shared with me by my mentors, have served me well.
So you are wondering where the crow in the title of the story comes in. Well here it is. One day, after my contract had ended, the employee in this story and I ran into each other on the sidewalk in front of the office. We were in the midst of one of those “fake chatting” moments when a shadow fell upon us. We both looked up to see a very large black crow flying right over our heads. The shiny bird seemed to look over its shoulder at me as it flew past. Suddenly it circled back toward us and that is when I heard it. The squishy, loud and unmistakable plop of bird droppings. One large glob hit the small space of sidewalk between us. I was sure I had been hit but it appeared that we had both been missed completely. Not even our shoes had any trace of the bomb that had just been dropped. We made quick mention of the fact that we had escaped unsoiled as the crow continued on its flight above the tiles of the building roof and beyond. I swear he looked back at me again but this time with a smirk on his beak. Our conversation quickly returned to work and other things and how we had to get back to whatever it was we had to do.
I saw it just as she turned to walk away; the shimmering white of bird crap. The “what’s that white stuff in bird doo, that’s bird doo too”, type of stuff. The thick chalky white was in a wide swath starting in the thickness of the hair at the top of her head, down to the bottom of her right buttock cheek. There was a small space between the end of her hair and the beginning of her collar where it appeared to have gone down the inside of her blouse. “Oh my, God, the bird got you!’ I screamed. Her first instinct was to check her hair and in doing so her hand was filled with the nasty white substance. Trying to disguise her panic, she instinctively wiped her hand on the front of her pants. Now she had the bird’s relieving on the back and front of her clothes. The look on her face was a mixture of embarrassment and rage. Above us, the crow had returned and was circling again. Seeing this and thinking she was about to be attacked again, she started running toward the office door, yelling,” So good to see you”, as she made a poo-filled grasp on the doorknob.
I looked up at the crow that now seemed to be hovering and waiting for acknowledgement. I swear he seemed to be smiling. I smiled back. As he flew over the rooftop again, I whispered thanks to my shiny black supporter. In his dramatic and extremely visual way, he reaffirmed my belief that just being good at what you do will never be all you need to be truly successful or safe. How you comport yourself in the workplace will always be a part of a good work ethic.
And as though this was not obvious enough, this incident proved to me that if you crap on others to achieve position, sooner or later, someone or even a black crow, will crap on you.
Copyright © 2014 by Sheryl J. Bize-Boutte