Character in the Workplace

Character is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking. There are too many people who think that the only thing that’s right is to get by, and the only thing that’s wrong is to get caught. – J.C. Watts

I’ve had this quote on my wall or on my desk for many years. It’s a message that resonates with me, particularly when working in the world of human resources where we often need to step into situations where an absence of “good character” has resulted in some type of workplace issue.

The best example that I can share that illustrates this quote is from an eye opening experience with a part-time job that I held while attending graduate school. I worked for a company that specialized in the pre-employment analysis of candidates for positions that required a high level of trust and integrity such as some government contract positions. The company I worked for used polygraph examinations, behavioral testing, and a variety of tools to screen and evaluate applicants.  Many of the staff were former law enforcement officers from local police departments, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the U.S. Secret Service. In my role, I would be conducting applicant integrity interviews after reviewing the results of a behavioral assessment survey.

The idea of my analysis was to review “areas of concern” with the applicant that were identified in the assessment survey, and observe verbal and non-verbal behavior responses to a series of questions related to the specific topic. (I completed a 4-day training course with John E. Reid & Associates in preparation for this position.) While I was initially skeptical of the fact that an applicant would actually admit to the fact that they would lie, cheat, and/or steal in the workplace, there was a larger than expected number of individuals that openly admitted to me in an interview setting that they would partake in dishonest actions, up to and including criminal activity, usually if there was no one looking or no way to get caught.  While I only spent about nine months in this role, the experience has remained with me ever since and often saddens me when I think about some people who were comfortable with what I felt was a “lack of character.”

All of us, as humans, have some type of moral compass that helps us to determine right from wrong. The study of ethics, conscience and morality has given us various explanations for this over the ages…religion, learned behavior, human nature, etc. In any case, a person’s character is often displayed by their actions of doing “right or wrong.”

How many of us see this and experience this on a daily basis in our workplaces? I am confident that each one of us has been faced with various moral dilemmas in our employment such as:

  • Being asked to “look the other way.”
  • Being told to hire a less qualified applicant for reason “X.”
  • Being ordered to follow one set of rules for one employee and not the other.
  • Being asked to do something wrong, but “for the good of the company.”
  • Being asked to mislead a customer, client, or employee to allow the boss to “save face.”

I have, and hope I always will, side on the side of “doing the right thing.”  This has, on several occasions, reached the point at a job of deciding whether or not it was time to seek other employment.  In a couple of cases, that ended up being the end result and I have no regrets.

Until each of us are faced with our own moral dilemmas we don’t really know how we will respond. Sure, it’s easy to say that we will do what is right and follow our conscience, but let’s be real…we all have careers, bills to pay, and others dependent upon us and our income. It’s not always a simple decision to make. It’s also not just in the workplace. You may be faced with these challenges in school and even in your personal life.  I was once kicked out of a good friend’s wedding party as a groomsman because I informed the groom of some destructive and borderline criminal behavior of his fiancée that I had knowledge of. I knew what could happen with the friendship, but the need to do what was right and let him know for me, outweighed the eventual consequence.  (In case you are wondering, the marriage didn’t last.)

Character in the workplace is something that all of us have and will deal with during our career many times over. Each situation will be unique with its’ own unique challenges and require each of us, often with little time to think about it, to decide what course of action we will take.  For me, it sounds simple, but I will just try to refer to and embrace the quote on my desk and think about doing what I know to be right, no matter who is or isn’t looking. Hopefully, that’s just my character.

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