Where You Draw The Line
You’ll be asked more than once in your career
to do something that doesn’t feel right to you.
Where do you draw the line?
Offering guidance on integrity is a bit like trying to put your finger on a watermelon seed. It’s slippery, and more than a little challenging. The very definition of integrity is debated often; arguments rarely seem to end in consensus.
At its most basic level, integrity is thought of as doing what’s right. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines integrity as “consistent adherence to generally acceptable moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character.” Oh. That’s much more clear.
The challenge with integrity is ambiguity. Your definition will vary from that of others. Integrity isn’t a black and white issue, particularly in the workplace. Instead, integrity is a gradient from undoubtedly right to morally reprehensible.
What becomes most important is:
Where do you draw the line on right vs. wrong? What if your employer draws the line differently and asks you to cross it?
As challenging as the concept of integrity can be, the reality of integrity in action is, in some ways, easier. You hear people say “I’ll know it when I see it.” With integrity, it’s more about knowing it when you feel it. Our instincts are a great indicator of right vs. wrong in most cases.
You won’t find a gauge of integrity here, for good reason. It’s not up to me to judge right vs. wrong or good vs. bad integrity. All that matters is that you have conceptual clarity for yourself. With that clarity comes a sense of your personal integrity. Your ethics, values, morality and character all align to that integrity as you define it.
When you do good (by your own measure), you feel good. When you violate your sense of personal integrity, you feel bad. When you act based on your own choices, you make the call and live with the consequences. When you feel pressured to act outside of your personal integrity, however, the weight can be crushing.
Your instincts may be nagging quietly that something doesn’t sit well, or they may be screaming in your ear to retreat. In either case, how you respond has implications to your reputation, your success, and potentially your livelihood. Eating your soul for breakfast may be the least of your concerns.
The Challenge of Integrity
The Challenge of Integrity
Challenges to your integrity come in many forms in the workplace. You may be asked to keep a confidence that can harm or have consequence to another. Maybe you’re asked to withhold information from people who should know. Worse yet, you may be asked to misrepresent information or lie outright to a co-worker or client. You may even find yourself in a situation where you’re asked to engage in an activity that intentionally harms another person or breaks the law.
When these situations occur, a common reaction is to divorce yourself from the action and outcome: “I’m just doing what I’m told.” You may choose to belittle the consequences: “No one will really get hurt.” You can stand on false principle: “Maybe it’s really the right thing to do.” You can even rationalize your choice: “It’s not that bad.” Or you can accept that you may have a genuine concern about personal integrity that requires you to make a hard decision.
You know your personal integrity is being challenged when you feel that twinge of uncertainty in your head or in your heart. Based on my experience, moving forward by default, without thoughtful consideration, doesn’t serve you well. That’s not to say you won’t make the choice to move forward. It’s just that when it comes to matters of personal integrity, you’re always served well by taking the time to check yourself before proceeding. Here are a few techniques to guide you through the process.
1. Understand The Objection.
When you start to sense that a requested decision, behavior or action doesn’t feel right, stop to consider the source of concern. Do you simply disagree, preferring to take another action? Do you feel a challenge to your character and values? Are you being asked to do something most people would consider inappropriate? Checking your barometer when it comes to integrity helps you determine why something feels off. Only then can you consider alternatives.
If you disagree with an action simply because you prefer a different one, it’s likely not integrity whispering in your ear, but your ego. If you’re being asked to act in a way that doesn’t align to your values, you may be able to deliver the same outcome in a better way by changing your approach. Often this requires creativity and negotiation, but it’s almost always worth the effort to find a new course. The hardest of all situations is when you know that what you’re being asked to do is wrong, by your standards or someone else’s. In those situations, you need to consider your alternatives carefully. Read on.
2. Play It Out In Your Mind.
Often, we’re so busy at work that we don’t pay much attention to the consequences of our actions. In most cases, it doesn’t matter. When it comes to personal integrity though - when you’re feeling uncertain or angry about what’s being requested of you - you need to play it out.
How will you feel if you take this action, during and after? What are the most likely outcomes and implications to others? Will someone be hurt, either as a direct hit or collateral damage based on the action? If you’re acting in secrecy because of character, moral or legal concerns, what are the implications if your actions are discovered?
My favorite approach to playing out integrity issues is this: Imagine the people you most respect and admire. Pretend you’re telling them about your situation and your intended actions. Use all the excuses, fine print, and rationalizations you can muster. Would you be embarrassed to tell them? What would they say? Would they approve? Would they challenge you to make a different choice? This one hurts sometimes, but it keeps you honest about just how far beyond the line you may be stepping. Clarity is invaluable.
3.Find Common Ground.
Sometimes you’re asked to do something that feels wrong, but you can make it right (or less wrong) by actively bringing your integrity into the mix. It starts with avoiding the inclination to believe your employer is intentionally choosing to lack integrity. It could be that your employer didn’t think through the implications of a decision. Or perhaps they didn’t realize a request would press your boundaries of personal integrity. You may simply have a more stringent view of integrity than your employer.
If you approach matters of personal integrity with the belief that finding common ground is possible, at least some of the time, you’re more likely to feel empowered to do right. This is true even if your employer lacks integrity in obvious ways. When you disagree with a course of action, you owe it to yourself to participate actively in trying to alter the course.
It’s easy to feel like a victim. Why not offer alternatives or help adjust the process in ways that allow you to feel authentic to your sense of personal integrity? As with all negotiations, it’s about knowing what matters to you… and what matters to the other person. Only then can you develop a win-win situation that allows you to preserve your integrity. It’s important to develop valid alternatives in search of a better way.
This isn’t about getting on your high horse about the concept of morality, or saying you believe a course chosen by another is wrong. This is about constructive input. Start by saying, “I think we may get a better outcome if we consider this approach.” Or “Would you mind if I did a and b vs. c and d? I would feel more comfortable with that approach.” You’ll be surprised how often you can impact outcomes just by speaking up. Be productive, keep your best intentions top of mind, and seek to find common ground.
4.Take a Stand, With Caution.
Sometimes, you can’t win. There’s no common ground. You fundamentally disagree with something that’s being asked of you. You’ve determined it’s a matter of integrity, you’ve played it out, and you can’t find alternatives that would be acceptable to your employer. These are among the most difficult situations you’ll encounter in your career. There’s risk to your employment if you refuse and there’s risk to your integrity if you act.
In these circumstances, your instincts become more important than ever. You have a tolerance all your own for living in the “gray” area between black and white. None of your options will feel great to you. Use caution, talk with people you trust in confidence, and consider the implications of your decision before you act. Let’s take a look at your choices.
a. If you do what’s asked of you: Bring as much integrity to the process as you can and be creative in finding ways to minimize any negative impacts to yourself or others. Be easy on yourself, knowing others have had to compromise in similar ways. Watch for how often you’re being asked to step across the line. If it’s with frequency, consider another course. In matters of legality, proceed with significant caution if at all. Play it out fully and be sure you’re willing to take the risk.
b. If you refuse to act: Be sincere and honest in explaining to your leadership team why you don’t feel comfortable moving forward. Don’t introduce judgment of others if at all possible; make this about your choice. Ask if you can remove yourself from the process without penalty. Make this choice with full recognition that there may be consequences to your future success, or potential immediate impact to your employment.
c. If you challenge authority: Be careful. If you believe your boss is asking something of you that doesn’t align to the broader interest or intention of the business, you can escalate to a more senior leader. This is dangerous in that it may cause your employer to question your ability to be trusted, or your ability to do what’s asked of you. Remember that your boss still likely has full control over your employment. Even if you’re right, there can be severe consequences with this approach. Make sure you can live with the consequences.
d. If you choose to leave: A one-time event may or may not warrant resignation. Certainly ongoing challenges to your integrity suggest that your employer may not be the right one for you. Either way, leave with grace. Don’t tell your story to everyone on the way out. Don’t bad-mouth your employer to others. Accept it as a lack of alignment and move on. Disrespecting your employer to others is unattractive and may come back to bite you.
Maintaining personal integrity in the workplace is challenging. When you bring together any large group of people, alignment around common values is difficult. The key: it isn’t about everyone else; it’s about you. Clarity about what matters most allows you to be thoughtful about where you draw the line in your thoughts, behaviors and actions. When you feel that sensation that something isn’t right, be thoughtful about what’s causing the concern. Consider your alternatives. Invest time in being creative to do what needs to be done in a way you can feel good about it. When you can’t accept what’s being asked, make a thoughtful decision, knowing that you did the right thing for yourself. No one else can make the choice for you and no one else has to agree. Matters of personal integrity are yours, and yours alone.
My best to you.