BUSINESS ETHICS INSIGHT: The Intimidating Power of Integrity

A teacher once wrote telling me that a parent with a great deal of clout at her school asked her to change attendance records to make her child’s record look better. The teacher said she thought long and hard about the request but eventually refused, knowing it would make the parent angry.

I commended her moral courage. I wish it didn’t take courage to do the right thing, especially in such a clear case as this, but in the real world people with power often retaliate when they don’t get what they want. This can make our lives difficult.

Moral courage is the much-needed bodyguard of conscience and character. The temptations and pressures to sacrifice integrity are numerous and powerful. We should be able to overcome the temptations and resist the pressures by sheer self-interested logic. After all, without our integrity we will find our souls on the auction block over and over. Moral courage allows us to do the right thing even when it costs more than we want to pay and we need it to stop us at the very beginning of the slippery slope of moral compromise.

My first instinct was to think of the parent who subjected the teacher to this corrupt and corrupting request as a villain, but I suspected she was a basically decent mom so intent on helping her child that she ignored her moral brakes.

But it’s wrong to ask someone to lie or cheat. When it comes from someone with power, it’s worse. Power is intimidating even when it’s not used.

But unswerving integrity can also be intimidating. Improper requests deserve an immediate, firm, and dignified response that leaves no ambiguity that they’re inappropriate. Be careful not to be self-righteous, though. Let the person who asked you to do the wrong thing worry about what you think of them. If he or she persists, let them – not you – worry about the consequences.

Integrity is power. Integrity is intimidating.

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