I recently listened to a conversation that both sickened and disappointed me. The second-in-command of a company told her boss she got the list of all customers from a nearby competitor. She was smiling as she waved around the report. The CEO wanted to read it. Why was I in this meeting?
Let’s get this straight. I’m no angel. I’m not a Quaker (sorry, I borrowed that line from Captain Winters in the movie Band of Brothers). Heck, I’ve screwed up so many times personally, it’s not even funny–just ask my wife and children.
Still, I have standards, a moral code. And nothing will penetrate that intangible fortress of steel.
That’s why I was taken back by this COO who was able to obtain the sales list of her company’s competitors. She obtained it from one of their unhappy employees.
“Mark, why so glum?” she asked.
Is There a Such Thing as Integrity in Business?
My favorite definition of integrity is doing the right thing when no one is looking. It’s that simple. You can throw out the rest of the so-called core values written on company corridors or websites. Most core values are aspirational at best. Just do the right thing always – every other decent act follows that standard of living.
So why was I so glum? Because at that one point in time, I lost all respect for that COO. I no longer can trust that person. I also learned about this person’s true colors.
Since I was silent with a blank look on my face, she asked what I’d do.
Simple. “Call the CEO, tell him (or her) that we have a customer list belonging to them that came into our possession. We’re shredding it and you may want to talk about the importance of confidentiality to your staff.” I still stand by those words.
I’m 100% that did not happen. That’s because this company does not have a compass pointing toward a true north leading to purpose, meaning, and wholeness.
Their goal is only to make money vs. wanting to make a difference in its community, with its clients, and it’s 500-plus employees. Forget the costs of veering away from a true north – as long as it’s profitable, that’s all that counts for these two leaders.
Can Integrity be Taught?
Over the next week, I was still bummed out about this encounter. I was down. I’m still frustrated as I write about it. I’ve known these people for 3 years and beyond.
One of them has been named the top CEO in her community only a few years ago. I know because there is a framed magazine cover of the CEO in her office.
And that got me curious, can integrity be taught in the workplace? Does such training work? Can a person with a natural propensity to ignore a true north be persuaded to do what is right at all times when no one is looking?
There’s a case study that sheds some light carried out by a well-known behavioral economist.
Dan Ariely on Ethics
Dan Ariely is one of my favorite writers on behavioral economics. In a blog post, he tells about an experiment of kids who cheated on a test in his classroom.
Some of his kids sent an email to all the students in one of Ariely’s class from a fabricated student. One group of kids got a message with a link to answers on the test. Nearly 70% of the kids clicked on the link.
Another group was sent the same message, but there was a line added as such: “Obtaining documents that grant unfair advantage to an individual is not allowed.”
Would the clicks to the test answers go down? Yes, and by a lot. Only 41% clicked.
It’s still a high number, but much lower than the 69% who clicked without the added verbiage about cheating.
What’s the moral?
In his book Predictably Irrational, Ariely states that the evidence is clear that honor codes improve ethics. But is that enough? Would an honor code have kept the COO from taking delight in looking at her competitor’s client list?
I have my own theory, but let me end with three stories that have shaped my thinking on this matter.
Bobby Jones Lived Integrity
I’ve worked with businesses who include integrity in their core values statements. Please remove those. Don’t tell the world you’re people of integrity. Let others tell that to you based on the way you treat others and the behaviors they observe about your company.
I suppose that’s why I love the Bobby Jones story so much–it’s a story of one man living out his convictions rather than talking about them.
Many of us know this story. I’ve researched it to no end, and I believe it to be true.
In short, Mr. Jones was competing in the 1925 U.S. Open (golf) when he accidentally brushed some grass with his club. The movement caused an ever-so-slight movement of his ball.
He took the shot, but he informed his partner and an official that he was taking a penalty shot. His golfing partner and officials tried to talk him out of taking a penalty shot.
Jones lost the championship by one stroke, the penalty stroke.
Bobby Jones also would not have taken that customer list.
In 1999, I meet this really good-looking dude who looks like he stepped off the cover of GQ. We would have several meetings as we talked about business and cash flow before, during, and after the startup of his new chiropractic practice.
Over the next 20 years, my wife and three kids have been patients of his. During my first visit, I smiled as I waited in the guest area. He had a book on an end table by a writer I admire and respect. Revere is probably a better word.
The author is the late Larry Burkett. For those of you who do not recognize that name, before Dave Ramsey, there was Larry Burkett. The title I found in Jeremy’s waiting area was Business by the Book.
Burkett mentions a business owner that just won’t leave my mind who had a small $300,000 Medicare issue he needed to deal with.
Sam ran a large health-care organization, and during a routine check of Medicare billings, a staff member discovered $300,000 in unauthorized services. Only two people knew about these billings–Sam and the internal auditor.
Care to guess what Sam did?
Sam did the right thing when no one was looking. According to Sam, integrity is not for sale.
I’m confident that Sam does not take that competitor list.
Ignoring a Bankruptcy Judge
The best book I’ve ever read regarding a person’s integrity is On the Waters of the World by Robert Flood which is no longer in print.
In 1957, the Meloon family refused to pay kickbacks to government inspectors which destroyed company sales. Bankruptcy followed soon thereafter.
However, family members did not hide behind the law. As cash flow permitted, every vendor was paid back in full. The book includes one story where a descendant was paid even though the creditor had passed away.
I cannot even begin to describe this behavior. This family had a code indelibly inscribed on their hearts. I cannot adequately define integrity, but I can point you to the Meloon family and say, “There it is.”
Oh, and more note – I’m certain what the Meloon family would have done with that competitor information.
A Personal Appendix
Scott, where do I begin? A man of humility, integrity, and always doing the right thing. Andrew, Pam, Eric, and the rest … you guys are cut from the same cloth.
Neil, I am where I am today because of you. Period. We had a love-hate relationship when I worked for you. You did the loving and I did the hating. Yet, you’re the guy who always does the right thing when no one is looking. I learned how you helped a few people in their careers–I found out because I was a pretty decent analyst. Don’t worry, your secrets of good deeds are safe with me.
Brian H., please never change.
J.B. You are Bobby Jones, Ralph Meloon, and Sam all combined. Thomas, you too. Penny, ditto.
John M., same thing – don’t change. We’re brothers.
George, you and Becky are rocks. No, more like boulders. You could have written the article above far better than myself.
Shane, remember the interview I did with you for an internal newsletter? You know, the one where you wouldn’t change numbers after multiple requests? The one where you were escorted to your car? The one where you were without a job after doing the right thing? I wanted so badly to tell your story above. But I know I’m not allowed to. But you are a member of my personal Integrity Hall of Fame. You are such a class act.
Bob M. Please never change.
Ken, you are one of a kind. I’m getting more out of our working relationship than you are. Everybody in West Virginia needs to know your name because you live and breathe integrity daily. And Bruce, don’t get me started on you. I’m becoming a better CFO because of you.
Jake, behind your back, I’m always talking about your integrity to clients and peers who need your service. You, your brother, and mom and dad are pillars in the community you live in.
Don, don’t worry, I’m not even telling you that you made my list. This line is just for me – appreciate your integrity.
Shawn and Julie, your parents taught you absolute truth and integrity. You guys live it daily. I’ve never told you this, but there have been days I’ve been emotionally drained, but when I step inside your facility, without fail, I’m energized and feel renewed. Where did that come from? I know the answer. Trevor, Carla, Brock, Dave, Josh, and others I’ve missed, you guys live integrity daily with no effort whatsoever. Keep making a difference. And Laura L., you were put on this earth to inspire and give hope to others. Integrity means wholeness or completeness. That’s what you are doing for others. Don’t stop.
Joe, you and Susan are the most spiritual people I’ve ever met. I hope it rubs off on me. You two live a life of integrity every day and I see it in your kids. We need more business owners like you.
Brian, I miss your mom and dad every single day. Don would have loved this blog post. You are also a man that lives and breathes these words.
Bill, I’ve told you that you are one of the most ethical men I’ve ever worked for. One day, all of your kids will say, “I want to be like my dad.”
Jeff, our 2-year project was way too short, but your family is special. You and the Meloon family are similar in terms of what you guys are made of.
Teri (and Kevin too), thank you for your life of integrity and the way you showed it to my kids when you were teaching.
Brent – within five minutes, I knew you were a man of substance and integrity. I admire and look up to you.
Arlan and Jane – where were you guys 5, 10, 15, 20 years ago? Thank you for emulating a life of integrity without any effort. I’m proud to be counted as a member of your great business.
Steve, you are doing what I could never do. Don’t think I don’t notice it.
Debbie, Brock, Emily, and Drew – our work will never be over. Help me to be the complete person that I may never become. But through your prodding, I’ll never stop trying. You guys are the embodiment of integrity.
I have left off hundreds of names, but I need to stop. Now it’s your turn. Reach for your journal and write what integrity means to you and write down the names of men and women who exhibit and model integrity that is shaping your life.