Personal integrity in the workplace

Frank Newberryin Consultancy

FrankNewberry2012"Even if I was a spy or a secret agent, and my success was based on telling lies and being deceitful, I could still retain some integrity by being loyal to Queen and country"

It took me a while to accept that people make a choice about whether or not to show personal integrity at work. I have always just assumed that, if my employer was going to pay me to work, then I was obliged to deliver all the components of integrity like honesty, truthfulness, reliability and honour.

Even if I was a spy or a secret agent, and my success was based on telling lies and being deceitful, I could still retain some integrity by being loyal to Queen and country. Personal integrity was always a vital expectation I had of myself and, in turn, it was an expectation I had of colleagues and my employer. Why would people at my workplace not have integrity?

More a matter of personal maturity than personal integrity

Well, like many people, I noticed early on in my work life that reality often does not match expectation. We have all met people who steal from their employer, most often by starting work late and finishing early. They are on the premises, but just not working.

They might continue in this fashion until management puts a stop to it. I take this type of behaviour to be more a matter of personal maturity than personal integrity i.e. immature employees exploiting immature supervisory staff. A relatively minor problem that can be fixed with some training.

The need for realism as opposed to idealism

I find a lack of integrity in senior management a much bigger challenge. The lack of personal integrity at higher levels has plagued society all through history. In 16th century Florence, the much maligned Nicolo Machiavelli emphasised the need for realism in these matters as opposed to idealism. He was tortured and banished for his remarks, but not before he famously wrote:

'There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This … arises partly from fear of the opponents … and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them'.

We had been asking too many difficult questions

Let me illustrate the need for personal integrity in the workplace with a real life example. For a number of years, I was employed by one of the largest companies in the country as a trainer and consultant. My division had been cut back by two thirds (from seventy-six down to twenty-seven people) - officially because savings were needed, but mainly because we had become a nuisance.

We had been asking too many difficult questions and challenging the assumptions made by senior operational managers too often. We were only doing what we were trained to do but, after a year or two, very senior management started to tell our senior manager to 'back off'. Our senior manager took this as an attack on his own professional and personal integrity and resisted strongly. He was sacked.

Now I was not one of those in the twenty-seven who had kept their jobs, but I was clinging onto gainful employment by virtue of working on a project led by the director who had sacked our senior manager.

The project was complex, somewhat frustrating to work on, but vital, we thought, to the future of the company. My director had been invited to a meeting at the very highest level in the organisation and wanted me go along with him to answer questions about the progress of this complex project.

We need them more than they need us, so 'be nice'

He told me the meeting was a routine briefing, but I may be needed to answer some questions of detail. My director repeatedly stressed that I should not contend or challenge anyone at this top level meeting.

He also said quite clearly that 'we need them (very senior management) more than they need us, so 'be nice'. I had been to this type of meeting, at a slightly lower level, before and, at that meeting, I did not successfully challenge the destructive cynicism of a very senior manager. I was intimidated that day and ended up being 'nice' when, with a little more courage and competence, I could have represented my division a little better than I did.

Perhaps this was in the back of my mind when I duly agreed to go with my director, and 'be nice', at my very first meeting with the top brass at the company's head office in the City of London.

The project was doomed to fail

The meeting was in the opulent office of the second-in-command of the entire company. He wore a silk suit and was a gracious host, but clearly a very dynamic individual. I was the lowest ranking person at the meeting. My director opted to sit behind me, whereas people I had worked with on the project from other departments were sitting behind their respective directors, and it was their directors who did the talking.

The briefing went smoothly until 'question time' when, to my horror, one of the directors (not mine) announced very forcefully that the project was doomed to fail. Being the junior person in the room, I naturally waited for my more senior project team members to speak up in defence of a project we had all been working on for some months. They said nothing.

I was on my own

I cleared my throat and asked the director why he felt that way. His answer was, again, quite forceful, but I got the impression this time that his people had not briefed him fully. I did not want to embarrass my fellow project team members, so I told him as concisely and politely as I could that he had got it wrong and I would be very happy to supply evidence that would reassure him. I then looked at my fellow project team members in order to let them comment or, at least, nod in agreement. To a man they broke off eye contact with me. One even started looking out of the window. I was on my own.

I quickly repeated my offer to supply evidence and reassurance which was accepted rather reluctantly and, within moments, the meeting was over. It was, at this time, as I was coming to terms with the lack of personal integrity shown by my project team colleagues, that I realised I was in serious trouble.

He had got it wrong

I had done what I was expressly asked not to do by my director. He had sat silently behind me as I told a senior manager in front of his peers, his staff and his boss, that he had got it wrong. I had contended and I had challenged.

I sat and waited while other people got up to leave. Rather like a man on the gallows I waited for the end to come. My director would, at any moment, start to say his farewells to people and he would then invite me into the corridor - where he would tell me I had lost my job because I had defied his instructions.

Why did this happen? Because I could not keep my big mouth shut when my personal and professional integrity was challenged. I could not keep quiet, even when others (who probably knew better and perhaps feared more) chose not to take a chance and show any personal integrity at all.

There can be no compromise

You see, to me, it seemed so simple. If my personal integrity is at stake, my self respect is at stake and, if my self-respect is at stake, there can be no compromise.

As I sank into my chair, fearing the worst, a silk clad arm reached across to shake my hand and a voice said: 'Thanks Frank, I'm certainly glad you came today'.
What a relief! The number two in the whole company had commended me for what I had said and done. My director led me to the corridor, put his arm around my shoulder, commended me enthusiastically and then went away smiling. I kept my job.

In conclusion, let me just warn you that people around you may not always show personal integrity, but that is their problem. If you feel you have lost yours, then that is the first step in rebuilding it by starting afresh.

Your self respect and your personal integrity in the workplace are worth more than everything else to you, your employer and your career. May I wish you well in maintaining your personal integrity.

Frank Newberry has been helping people to get better results in the turfcare sector for over twenty years.

Exclusive to Pitchcare and coming this autumn - watch out for Frank's completely revised workshop: Essential Management Skills for Groundsmen and Greenkeepers.

If you are having problems and frustrations at work, and you think it might help to talk about it, you can get in touch with Frank directly via the contact tab of his personal website

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