Almost everyone has been there in their career. You are asked to do something that is technically not illegal or immoral, but you personally find tasteless or maybe even offensive. It’s something that you find goes against your individual values and character. A personal example that immediately comes to mind was a time where I was pushed to get some senior executives of a large retail company I had just started working with to watch a video. The video was a little monthly news update put out by the consumer electronics firm I was working for. Being honest, it was really a commercial put out by the leadership at my company that was designed for much smaller channel partners. If you are a one man operation, there was some value in the little monthly puff piece in that it was another serving of the vendor kool-aid to keep small retailers motivated and selling my companies product. For the executives I was dealing with at the large corporation it was a tremendous waste of their highly valuable time. They were simply doing things that were not aligned to what was promoted on the show as they were on a completely different level. I was put under pressure to make sure my contacts watched it, even though I knew it was meaningless for someone at their level and for what they were doing. I needed to keep my job and my boss happy so I did what I was told and strongly encouraged them to watch the show. I was told to say it was going to have important updates. When the video was over the look my customers face as they left the room told me everything I needed to know.
They realized very quickly there was limited value in the news update and were annoyed that their time was wasted. I was disheartened. They weren’t specifically mad at me, but I had pride in the work I did. I never want to do my customers a disservice. I followed the old adage of “treat others as you wish to be treated”. I knew the video would be a waste. I knew that a company which has 500 sales reps is very different than a mom and pop. I knew this massive company was ramping up on my product line and the current workload was highly demanding and they expected support from us, support that would help, not distract from their efforts. Efforts I might add that would have a very strong positive impact on our own company.
The natural conclusion: My company was dysfunctional, that goes without saying. But sometimes companies can be highly profitable in spite of their dysfunction because of their market position or technology. If the bottom line is good and still growing every year then there is no incentive to change behavior. This was the case with my organization. Being in a monopsony position, my company continued treating its traditional ‘partners’ with near indifference to their needs as the smaller organizations had few other options and no real negotiating power. They, unfortunately, treated their enterprise partners the same way and I was in charge of making that happen. It felt wrong and I felt dirty.
There are many other examples. My initial example was about time and following a corporate line but in many cases it results around pushing people to use a flawed product, or maybe a product where there is a better solution from a competitor.
What if it’s an acceptable product but simply against your personal code. Victoria’s Secret is well known for its aggressive policies with forcing its associates to push the store credit card. For anyone paying attention, there has been an explosion in consumer credit. The store baits its younger consumers with a big discount for signing up for the card, and then charges criminal interest rates as their customers build up a balance over time. Pushing credit to very young adults ala victoria’s secret can be a real conflict of interest if you have had negative experiences with your own credit or if you are simply anti-debt as I am.
I’ve talked about situations where the employee is interfacing with partners or customers but this doesn’t have to be external relations. You can work for a highly driven boss or organization that maintains a work culture of being on the job 24/7 even if your role is in internal finance. This could be a real conflict if you are the type of person who believes in a strong work and life balance. It could be little things like the organization asking you to use personal items like your cell phone for business. Totally understandable if there is some bureaucratic roadblock in getting an employee a business cell phone. In this case it’s not the cost as the primary issue as there is a near zero cost for extra voice calls. But mixing work and personal can cause issues. There are many reasons why someone would be reasonable in having a very strong desire to keep their work and personal contact points separate.
No matter what the situation is, people have values and oftentimes work will challenge those values. The big question becomes, what should you do about it?
Just Do it?
The first real response, and the one I think most people take is simply to do the job. I encouraged my customers to watch the video because that’s what I was directed to do. I, like most people I know who follow this track, did it for practical reasons. I have bills to pay. I need healthcare. I don’t want to lose what I have in life. If your constantly, or even occasionally , telling your boss: “NO” to a request, there is a strong chance they will find someone who will say “Yes” much more frequently.
There is also the flip side of trying to treat others as you wish to be treated. It’s that we, the professional class, tend to take pride in our professionalism. This means we maintain a commitment to keeping our word. If we take a job, we try to do the job to the best of our abilities. This means when we are asked to do something, we do it. In the case of things that cause personal conflict, we may do it with significant reservations, but we still do it.
There are a few ways to do the distasteful task without reservations. The first is to drink the corporate Kool-Aid. We let the company change us, or at least we give off that perception to everyone. I believe there are some weak minded individuals who actually believe the obviously false corporate line. I’d like to think they are great liars. At least then these people can be respected for being very strategic with their careers. Alternatively they may have no moral compass themselves and the company fills that void in their personal character. Neither of these are good options in my opinion. Being so strategic that you are lying to yourself and the world is bad. Having so little character that some corporate initiative fills it is even worse.
One way to minimize the personal conflict goes back towards our desire for professionalism, especially our service towards the company. It’s a bit of a mental jump but I had one professional I knew tell me how he gets over the character conflict. He explained that he concentrates on the fact that he’s providing a service, i.e. he’s doing a job he was hired to do. He doesn’t think one second more into it and he believes that the customers and other entities understand we are doing what we are supposed to do, and they will respect that. He has a point and occasionally adopting his perspective has helped me get through some egregious corporate requests.
What are your options?
Realistically nobody would want to spend their entire life where their work is in constant conflict with their own values and character. Anyone who finds themselves in this situation generally has to ask the question: what should you do?
When I was younger, I would try to argue against the bad behavior of the company. I’d painstakingly make the case to my supervisor that this issue or that initiative was incorrect and didn’t allow us to serve the customers as we were charged to. The natural conclusion to my argument was that we had to change our behavior to better align to their needs. My supervisor would usually agree, and then tell me that we don’t have an option and have to continue with the bad behavior.
The real problem with this tact is that corporations may be made up of people but they are not people. Organizations are unique in that they have a culture and a course they are following. Changing that culture is nigh on impossible, even if you are the CEO. I simply can’t recommend fighting the culture from an individual contributor role. It’s an exercise in futility and one that usually results in dismissal. There are simply too many people who care more about things other than the customer no matter what the corporate line is. My supervisors who listened to me usually accepted this fact before I did. That’s probably one of the reasons why they were supervisors.
No matter how much organizational leadership says they appreciate a maverick in their ranks to challenge the status quo, realistically the organizational makeup doesn’t. Who likes having a minefield of mavericks in the way of doing their job? If I’m the producer of the corporate video and I know I am measured by how many people watch and respond to it, do I really want any of my sales reps saying “This doesn’t work for my customer!” We can never forget that most supervisors are almost always given leeway by senior managers. It’s sort of a club. People up the chain will usually defer to the wants of downstream managers. Part of it is because upstream managers have limited bandwidth to know what’s really going on, and part of it is because it’s in their best interest to foster a culture of self determination. The manager is always perceived as more important than the individual contributor. If a first level manager doesn’t like the maverick individual contributor and wants to let them go, then more than likely the second level manager will let the first level manager make that decision. Unless you are the CEO, the owner, or someone who can not be removed for other reasons I would not fight the status quo. There is too much to lose.
One way to side step the personal character issues is to put your relationship first in your behaviors and decision making. In this case the person with the conflict would communicate to the people who are getting the poor product, service, or information. Using the video example from my past, that looks like “I have to get you to watch this video Mr. Customer, but honestly it’ll be a waste of your time”. You get to build your relationship with Mr. Customer but unfortunately in a world where everything is metric, then your not going to meet your goals with this tactic. Eventually this leads to a perception of poor performance. I’ve learned that this tactic doesn’t really work if you are directly measured against a metric like sales. Telling a customer “I have to get you to demo this product, but it doesn’t meet your needs” won’t get you many demo’s other than from customers who are very good friends and will go through the demo just for the sake of their relationship with you.
If you can’t change the company for uncounted reasons, and you know that over time you can’t be honest as it will impact your performance, then the obvious tactic is to move to a new job. Theoretically this is the best option except that changing jobs is very hard. There are issues of networking, resumes, relocations, reputational impact, cash flow, confidentiality, credentials, seniority, family, and many others. It’s no wonder that changing jobs is considered one of the most stressful things a person can deal with in life. Sticking where you are at will always be the easier option.
The One-Two Solution
Unless you are independently wealthy, walking away every time there is something that challenges your personal character or beliefs is simply not an option. I’ve seen those who have done it and they have had to deal with a very long term negative impact from their decision. When you are a professional, in most cases it’s hard to jump ship and quickly land in a comparable or better situation. A good rule of thumb comes from the character Treebeard in Lord of the Rings when he admonishes Merry and Pippin to “Don’t Be Hasty”
I think the best answer is the one-two solution. The first step is to find some mix of behaviors that will allow you to continue at work and compartmentalize your issues so they don’t really impact your emotional reactions. It might be a mix of things where for some of your contacts you share the reality of the situation so they can decide for themselves if they want to be a part of the morally questionable policy. For others you simply accept that you have to do your job and you’ll hold your nose as you do the thing that challenges you. The goal with this step is to minimize the emotional impact of the dissonance between your convictions and the behaviors.
The second step is to try to find a new job either internal to the current organization or externally. Step one will provide the time needed for a high quality job transition. Usually job transitions, at least the more positive transitions, take time for all of the reasons I cited earlier. Yes, we do live in a world where people jump jobs on average every four years but much of that is involuntary. In many cases people are moving from one set of problems to another, rather than make their life appreciably better.
There is no question that living in conflict sucks. Nobody wants to experience a character issue as part of their daily routine. No matter what your tact, some form of change will ultimately be necessary. It can be internal change, but more likely it’ll be an external change or move. There is one positive to whatever action you take, at least the constructive ones. Whatever action you take will, even if in a nearly imperceptible way, have a positive impact on the culture and the people around you. These decisions can be a bit like the butterfly wings which start the process of wind moving which results in a hurricane a year later. You may have had to deal with a conflict, but if you work in alignment with your personal convictions you can rest assured that you did what you could to better the situation for those that come after you. That, in my opinion, is the best outcome in any situation where personal character is challenged. Because, if you got to the end of this article, then it’s only people like you, who are concerned with personal character, which makes the world a better place in the long run!