Integrity, that moral quality of honesty and forthrightness, is a virtue we’re taught from a young age: at home, in the classroom, on our YMCA soccer teams, by religious leaders. In the workplace, integrity is touted in three-pronged boilerplate corporate mission statements and documentary-style feel-good marketing campaigns, but in practice—in practice, integrity in the workplace is often considered something that’s nice to have as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the company’s bottom line.
I once worked for a company that was not honest with its customers. I saw it first hand, plain as day, and I was even asked to perpetuate the behavior. I raised my concern to my manager, showed her the reasons why I felt the company’s practices were deceptive, pointed to specific examples and documented evidence. The response? I was berated, told I didn’t understand my work; I was even told that I’d have to “lower my standards” if I wanted to succeed in my career.
Do I regret speaking up? Not at all. Have I lowered my standards? Never. Did the company change its ways? Not one bit.
I won’t tell you that practicing integrity in the workplace is the fastest way to climb to the top. It’s not. So many businesses have succeeded because employees don’t speak up about nefarious or even illegal practices or because they silence those who do, either by intimidation, legal action, or by sending them out the door with an NDA pinned to their collars.
Integrity in the workplace is often tenuous, and we’re seeing it in our headlines. Think of Nike’s recently exposed toxic boys’ club culture, which invited institutional sexual harassment and discrimination; Verizon’s inhumane work requirements and conditions that have meant miscarriages for pregnant employees; and Boeing’s knowledge of problems with the 737 MAX airplanes, which claimed the lives of 346 people. And for those who speak up against wrongdoing, retaliation is barbarous: the personal, professional, emotional, mental, and financial toll of whistleblowing is well-documented.
These examples of integrity squelched are extreme cases, but most of us encounter a choice every day we’re in the office. There’s a moment when we can choose to fudge a number, blame a coworker, ignore a complaint, minimize a wrongdoing. It’s much easier to go this route, no? You’ll likely be rewarded, in fact.
But what if all of us decided that this is bullshit? What would happen if we decided that integrity is better than the alternative? Because it is.
Here’s what happens: Six executives resign when the women at Nike start making noise about its toxic culture, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team holds U.S. Soccer to account for its discriminatory compensation practices (and wins a fourth World Cup title—technically unrelated, but I can’t help but mention it), and Lily Ledbetter sees a law named in her honor after speaking out about discrimination she experienced while working for Goodyear.
These acts of bravery come at a cost, yes, but the reward for integrity can be reaped by more than just an individual.
When my boss berated me for speaking out, I responded with a respectful form of civil disobedience, telling my manager that while I would not participate in this practice (yep, I was refusing to carry out the duties of my job), I could not control her actions, but that I hoped she would be honest and ethical. After continuing to be penalized for standing up for my beliefs, I left that company and told them exactly why: I will not do the wrong thing, even if it affects your bottom line. In my subsequent search, I told interviewers this story, that my integrity was something I wouldn’t compromise and I hoped to find a company that felt the same way. In the end, that very unwillingness to compromise is what landed me a new job.