There have been numerous occasions over the course of my career where I’ve found myself in difficult situations professionally and I’ve had to make a decision that’s not been easy. Sometimes it’s been to speak up about something that wasn’t popular or to push back on the thinking of someone in a more senior position.
Other times it’s been to make an exception to a policy when I knew it was the right thing to do in that circumstance or to dig into an investigation about something that I knew was going to be messy for the organization. That has been especially tricky when the investigation involved a member of senior leadership. There are times when those situations have occurred and I’ve been faced with having to make a decision – a fork in the road so to speak. Choose the easy road or choose the right road?
Doing the right thing has always been a strong value of mine. I don’t specifically recall my parents sitting down and having conversations with me about this, but I’m sure it was instilled in me from them at an early age. I do recall a point in my childhood when I lied to my grandmother and how profoundly disappointed she was in me. I never wanted to feel that feeling again. Perhaps that was part of instilling such a deeply held belief in me that honesty and integrity are very important foundations in being a good person. These are things that I often talk to my son about as he’s growing up.
Honesty and integrity are things that are important as human beings in general and as part of being good citizens of a workplace. They are the unspoken expectations of being a corporate citizen. The things we expect others to emulate and yet we should never have to put in a handbook or on a wall – they should just be. They become even more important when we get into positions of leadership and even more so, in Human Resources, where we are expected to be the role models of integrity in a workplace.
Brene Brown in her book, Dare to Lead, says “Integrity is choosing courage over comfort. It’s choosing what’s right over what’s fun, fast or easy; and it’s practicing your values, not just professing them.” While having Integrity seems like it should be an easy thing to do, it’s often not. Why is that? I can think of a few times in my career when I’ve been faced with pivotal moments that were defining for me and my Integrity was on the line. Usually when I have that feeling of a pit in my stomach – that’s when I know Integrity needs to be my guide.
One such example was early on in my career when I was the HR Director for a recently merged hospital in Southern Oregon. We had two campuses that were bursting at the seams with patients and in a desperate need of a new campus for the community. Such a prospect was a very expensive one and our corporate office brought in outside consultants to assess the feasibility of buying property on the other side of town to build a new hospital for the community.
The alternative option was to continue to operate out of two campuses into the foreseeable future using the old, existing buildings and trying to retrofit what we had which was really inefficient and difficult for the staff to work with. The consultants spent the better part of the day with our middle management team interviewing us in a conference room as a group. There were a couple of dozen managers and directors who spent many hours discussing the issues, sharing the difficulties and challenges that we faced operating two campuses and trying to meet the needs of the patients, discussing what we envisioned was needed in the future for the community and the pros and cons of continuing to operate that way.
As a non-operational leader in the room, I stayed silent for much of the meeting and mostly listened to the dialogue. It was clear to me from what I was hearing, that consensus was continuing to operate with two campuses was really not an option. Yet, that’s not what I was hearing from the consultants as they were summarizing the day. Just as the meeting was coming to a close, I could no longer ignore the pit that had been getting stronger in my stomach for the better part of an hour.
Although it was incredibly uncomfortable, I asked, “What is your recommendation going to be to the corporate office?” There was dead silence in the room. When the consultants indicated that they were going to recommend we retrofit the space and continue to make it work rather than to build a new building, there was a revolt in the room. It was clear they had not taken seriously any of the concerns the leaders had expressed that day. I expressed that they clearly hadn’t listened to what had been shared with them that day, my grave concerns about that and that it seemed they had come into the room with preconceived ideas of what the outcome would be. I was nervous about what I was saying, but thankfully the leaders backed me.
I could have stayed there in silence and not said anything, but I had to listen to my gut. I had to choose courage over comfort in that moment and speak up. We stayed there for another hour and talked through the issues and the other leaders spoke up loud and clear, but it took my courage to pave the way for that. It was a moment when I knew I had to honor my integrity.
Later that day I crossed paths with the CEO and I was a little worried of how my “performance” in that meeting was going to get reported back to him by the consultants. They were clearly not happy because my speaking up had derailed their intended outcome. But he told me he was proud of me for speaking up. It was the right thing to do. I did it professionally and others backed me after I spoke the truth. I felt good about the outcome and good about how I handled it, although I’m sure those consultants were cursing me in the car all the way home that night. But I knew I did the right thing and I can always feel good about that.
Integrity in business is a choice. It’s not always an easy one, but it’s always the right one. When faced with critical moments of choosing integrity in business, there are five things I recommend you always keep in mind:
Brene Brown also says “Daring leaders who live into their values are never silent about hard things.” If you stand up for what you believe in and do it professionally, you can never go wrong.
Laurie is an experienced Human Resources executive who is passionate about organizational culture, creating great workplaces and employee engagement.