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In recent years, we’ve been inundated with news about industries, corporations, athletic teams, colleges and even faith-based organizations who have dismissed leaders because of egregious misconduct. Many of these transgressions had gone on for years while others turned a blind eye, and I give a lot of credit to the trailblazers who have denounced both the perpetrators and those who protected them. Still, I wonder how much of the ensuing remedial action was for show, and how much was a sincere interest in reparation. I worry that, as individuals, we are all too willing to abdicate responsibility for abuses perpetrated on someone else, simply because they aren’t happening to us.
I’m always uncomfortable when I hear colleagues talking about horrible things inflicted on “other people” at places they used to work or do business. Sexism. Racism. Ageism. Entitlement. Intimidation. I want to shout, “And that was OKAY with you? Why didn’t you call them out?” Have we become apathetic about injustices that happen outside our immediate circle? Or are we afraid of what might happen when we speak up for each other? Is “integrity” just something we pay lip service to, but don’t embrace in our personal code of conduct?
The other evening I was going to dinner with some friends when a man near us began loudly pestering a young woman. I told him he was being disrespectful and asked him to stop. Later, the friends I was with told me I shouldn’t have said anything, not because it wasn’t my business, but because the guy could have pulled a gun. Seriously? Have we reached the point that we won’t to do the right thing because we’re that afraid? I only did what I would want someone to do for my wife or daughters. I’d want someone to have their backs by telling him it’s NOT OKAY.
What do you think? Are we justified in calling out someone when they are being disrespectful to another human being? Is it a duty? What if it’s a colleague? What if it’s our boss? My intuition says that, as a society, our moral reprobation has a governing effect on bad behavior. In that sense, we owe it to each other to police outrageous behavior. Not with “shaming.” Not with righteous indignation. But by simply demanding that people treat others the way we all want to be treated.
Many companies have a stated code of ethics. At Freeman, I think most people can list our key values, even if they can’t recite the entire code of conduct. It begins with integrity — with its implication that we behave in the right way whether or not anyone is watching. At what point do we take this personally, especially when is it easier to just look the other way? What’s the point of a code of ethics that is subordinate to embarrassment, fear, or ambivalence?
It’s something we each need to consider for ourselves. Especially those of us in leadership positions, where it’s critical to model the behavior we expect see in others. How do we want people to treat our spouses, our family members, ourselves? The thing with bad behavior, as we’ve seen in all too many news stories, is that the longer people get away with it, the harder it is to stop. Abusive behaviors can become institutionalized anywhere, but only if the people who witness it do nothing. Don’t wait to act, or only do it for legal reasons; let’s do it because it’s the right thing to do. Maybe a word from you is all it takes to turn things around.