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Published: February 28, 2007

 
 

Winning the Devil’s Bargain

When the business world compromises an individual’s values, courage and climate can make all the difference.

Illustration by Lars Leetaru
I had my first moment of truth with an organization back in 1985, when I realized I would have to either leave my job or compromise my own integrity. It happened at the end of the annual meeting I’d helped organize for the 55 directors of the luxury hotel chain where I worked as a sales manager. I’d spent that week temporarily relieved of my regular duties to oversee “special arrangements,” and I’d come very close to quitting.

It had happened because, in front of the executive committee, my boss’s boss had assigned me to select attractive female managers to host a theme breakfast for our (all male) hotel directors, and to choose low-cut costumes for them. The demand had shocked me, but I could not refuse without appearing insubordinate or prudish. I said nothing at the time; later, I spoke to him in private. He retracted the request, but the experience left me with lingering concerns about this company’s willingness to compromise its managers’ professionalism.

I wasn’t naive. I told myself that ethical bumps in the road were part of the game of business. Our hotel managers sometimes secretly canceled guests’ discount-rate reservations on oversold nights. I myself had concocted the “right” numbers on sales forecasts, and then convinced my boss in his staff meeting that I really believed them. For four years I’d been able to persuade myself that one had to expect such practices even in first-class operations. And it almost worked this time, too; by the final night of the annual meeting, I’d nearly stopped fuming over the costume incident. I even allowed myself to feel some pride in how well the event had come off.

But then came the featured highlight: the annual raffle for frontline employees. The lights were bright on the stage. Clusters of faces in relative darkness — the hotel’s 400 housekeepers, bellhops, engineers, servers, and desk clerks — waited as the raffle drum spun in silence. The public relations director reached in and drew the grand prize ticket; and then she looked straight up at me and called out in a bright voice, “It’s Elizabeth Doty!”

My heart sank. They must have rigged the prize to ensure that I would win, hoping to rekindle my loyalty after that hellish week. I knew, and felt that everyone else knew, that the moment was utterly false. Still, I stood and smiled as I accepted my award. I was determined to appear loyal and committed. But I wasn’t. I left for business school six months later.

There is always some tension between our values as individuals and the compromises that we must make for our organizations. Being “professional” requires that we learn to reconcile these tensions. But when does the willingness to go along go too far? My experience at that annual meeting forced me to confront the fact that, over the years, my seemingly minor compromises had accumulated into a violation of my core identity and beliefs. And I now know, after 17 years of privately interviewing businesspeople about their own tensions at work, that my experience isn’t unique. As companies demand greater levels of productivity and commitment in an environment characterized by fierce corporate politics and the relentless pursuit of shareholder value, many managers and employees routinely grapple with predicaments that go straight to the question of personal integrity. On the one hand, it’s essential to believe in the organization to succeed in any leadership job; on the other hand, the reality of many organizations, particularly in a globalizing world where executive decisions are made from afar, makes it difficult to justify that belief.

 
 
 
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