Honest employees are truthful employees. Ken Meyer, vice president of human resources at Community Health Services in New York City, told me how an employee’s passion for the truth potentially saved lives, certainly vanquished a cheater, and changed the way Ken runs employee orientation sessions.
Marvin was the new director of the fire safety department at a large company where Ken used to work. When he was going through the contracts from various vendors, Marvin noticed that the one who supplied the company’s many fire extinguishers had never inspected them. Marvin called the vendor, Randy, to find out what was going on.
“You’re supposed to inspect them,” Randy said.
“Um, no I’m not. That’s your job,” Marvin replied.
Randy then explained how previous fire safety directors had handled the issue. “All you have to do, Marvin, is go through the building, take a look at the extinguishers, and make a note on where you checked the extinguisher,” Randy said. “Then count how many you inspected, let me know how many there are, and I’ll send you a check.”
“Wait a minute,” Marvin said. “You’re telling me that after I inspect our fire extinguishers, you’ll send a check to me, not to my company?”
“That’s right,” Randy stated, presumably expecting Marvin to exclaim, “Sign me up!” But that’s not how Marvin responded.
Instead he said, “All right, I can’t attest to what happened before me, but immediately two things have to happen. Number one, you have to send people to inspect these fire extinguishers. Number two, if you ever suggest anything dishonest like that to me again, I am going to drop you like a bad habit and you’ll never get work here again.”
Imagine a thoughtless employee lighting a small candle on a birthday cupcake intended for a coworker. The employee blows out the match and tosses it into a wastepaper basket that’s half full. As he leaves his desk to deliver the treat to his coworker, that match, which is still smoldering, rapidly ignites the contents of the trash can.
This is the kind of problem that fire extinguishers are meant to solve, but if Marvin hadn’t stood up to the corrupt vendor, and the nearest fire extinguisher wasn’t functional, what’s might have happened? How many lives would have been permanently altered by a building fire, and how much damage would the business have sustained? What would the company’s legal liability have been when the reason for the faulty extinguisher was discovered? How would its reputation have been tarnished, and what would it take to win it back? All of these questions would arise simply because a fire extinguisher wasn’t replaced when it should have been.
Marvin told Ken why he did what he did. “Ken, you want to live your life never having to worry about the knock on the door. As in the knock from someone about to say, ‘Something came to my attention that I need to discuss with you. Can you please step into my office and explain something to me?’ For what would be a relatively small amount of money, you find yourself fired, not collecting unemployment because it’s misconduct, and trying to find a job after something like that.”
“To this day, in employee training I repeat what Marvin said all the time,” Ken told me. “Conducting yourself ethically frees up your mind. Not having to worry about the knock on the door gives you peace of mind while you’re at work.”
Honesty is above all a feeling, a disposition, an orientation toward the truth. Honest employees cannot tolerate lying, fudging data, misrepresenting themselves or their companies, or other acts that display contempt for the truth. Falsehood in all its forms is a poison to an honest person.
Of course, even honest people recognize that you don’t have to tell the whole truth in every circumstance. Suppose you give Marvin a fruitcake during the holidays, and it turns out to be, um, less than delicious. If you asked him, “What did you think of the fruitcake?,” I’ll bet he wouldn’t say, “It’s the worst-tasting junk I’ve ever choked down, and I threw it out immediately,” even if that’s the truth. Instead, he might respond with, “It sure was nice of you to give it to me.” That’s both truthful and not hurtful.
All of the ten qualities we’ll examine in this series are hallmarks of high-character employees, but honesty is the most important one. No matter how knowledgeable or skilled a person may be, if he or she is fundamentally dishonest or doesn’t value honesty, that person is detrimental and possibly even dangerous.
In my earlier blog, How to Hire Courageous People,” I told the above story to illustrate Marvin’s courage. But what motivated Marvin’s courageous act was his honesty. There is often an overlap among the ten crucial qualities of high-character employees, as this story so powerfully illustrates.
Honest employees make your life as a compliance or ethics professional much easier. I’d want to hire and promote someone like Marvin. Wouldn’t you?
This essay, adapted from my latest book, The Good Ones: Ten Crucial Qualities of High-Character Employees, is the first entry in a series of ten blog posts called “What is a High Character Employee?” Next time we’ll address the question, “What is an Accountable Employee?”
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Through his keynote speeches and webinars on ethics, character, and leadership, Dr. Bruce Weinstein, The Ethics Guy®, works with organizations that want to do the right thing every time and that recognize that the key to their success is the high character of their employees. Download a summary of his presentations here. Watch excerpts from his keynote speeches here. Book him to speak or present a webinar to your organization here. Call him at 646.649.4501.