Several months ago I came across an interesting question in a film review. The question, it turned out, stuck with me much longer than the film itself: What happens to us when we learn something terrible about someone we thought we knew? It’s an interesting question taken from any of several angles, particularly in a time when so many people are under so much stress and people we might think we know will suddenly, through their choices and actions, turn out to be very different than we might have thought they were. This is as true in the workplace as in any other aspect of our lives.
Initially, the question was interesting from the perspective of the belief that we are effected and do effect others through our words and actions. Of course, everyone has a choice about the extent to which they will be affected by others, and as often as not choosing not to be affected by others is as much of a problem as being unconsciously or will-lessly effected by others. But when fostering an open collaborative work environment we are naturally more open to others and can be more easily impacted by big surprises in the behavior of close colleagues, for instance, surprises on the level of revelations of embezzlement, harassment, workplace physical violence, and so on.
An entire workgroup or even an entire company can feel tainted by serious transgressions on the part of one person who was or was assumed to be, based on work assignments, intimately involved in the evolution of creative processes of the group. The shock of listening to a respected colleague explain why his moonlighting on the job should be viewed as a perk, for instance, rather than basic dishonesty, can cause co-workers to wonder a number of things about themselves and the other. And, it can introduce workflow issues as trust is broken with that colleague, sometimes in a context which precludes the kind of open discussion that can rebuild trust and a sense of collegiality.
Ultimately, we can only control and be responsible for our own actions. But, that doesn’t stop us from grieving the loss of respect for a colleague.
In Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, we are treated to an analysis of how a culture of corruption can emerge in which many people are involved explicitly or implicitly, and ultimately from which exponentially more people suffer. This blog focuses primarily on what you can do to cope in, change, or exit from organizations which sustain a corrupting culture. And, from this perspective, Charlie Rose’s interview with John Rigas is an interesting case in point. Sometimes the rules that evolve, and certainly Rigas saw himself as playing by the rules, are not in alignment with accepted ethical standards, in which case, the best we can do is not participate—one way or another.
Recently, I had a conversation with a colleague about moonlighting on the job. He indicated that he saw what he had done—working on tasks for a private client and writing a book not assigned as part of the work for which he was being paid on “company time”—as a “perk” of his position, necessary to maintain his standing with his colleagues (through publishing), and that he did his job “well enough,” anyway. While I might have been surprised, dismayed, and ultimately disgusted by his reasoning and might have seen his rationalization as characteristic of someone in need of professional ethics counseling, what I found most interesting was my own reaction. I not only lost the respect I had held for him, but grieved that loss of respect. I felt tainted to be in a professional relationship with someone whose standards of conduct were so low, and so I distanced myself from him. And, I spent a long time thinking about John Rigas—again.
What happens to us when we learn something terrible about someone we thought we knew? Well, we might re-evaluate the terrible thing and check in on our own ethical standards. We might reflect on whether we have any culpability in the actions of our colleagues. And, we might try to determine whether we need to take action to expose the misconduct. Of course, in a corrupting culture, this can be a challenge. Ultimately, we might choose to change or distance ourselves from those organizations which tolerate or encourage unethical behavior. While a single person can act as a catalyst for change, ultimately it takes a significant portion of the community to cause true, lasting change. And, in the process, it is easy to lose one’s way while working for that change, even if one has become adept at being a “professional stranger.”
The film review from which the question with which I began came from was a review of The Reader, and it is asked on behalf of the experience of the narrator of the film, now a grown man, reflecting on his relationship as a teenage boy with a woman he loved and whom he later learned, through becoming aware of her trial and imprisonment, was a Nazi prison guard. A revelation of ethical breach or disconnect does not happen often, perhaps, for most of us. But the question regarding our own world view, choices, and behavior, is a useful one.