Here’s a challenging question: Would you rather be a good person with a bad reputation, or a bad person with a good reputation?

In recent years, many highly regarded public figures have turned out to have very dark pasts. Decades of high standing are suddenly destroyed when the truth comes out. The higher the person’s status, the longer it seems to take for their victims or whistleblowers to find their voice. In some cases, the problem seems to be personal narcissism, but in others, like the British Post Office scandal, systemic rot seems to have set in. How was it possible for senior managers to cover up problems to the point that hundreds of innocent people were driven into bankruptcy and wrongful imprisonment? I suspect that at any given moment, most believed they were acting professionally.  

In our jobs, we’re required to follow organisational rules and procedures. What do we do in those micro-situations where we face an ethical dilemma? When our organisation’s image depends on us colouring the truth slightly, or resolving a customer complaint with a pre-determined outcome? Or when we turn away a desperate client because they don’t fit the criteria?

Confronted with a difficult situation, most people err on the side of being seen to do the right thing, rather than using their conscience to determine what the right thing is. It’s easier, and looks better, to agree with the boss, for example, than to speak up if you’re uncertain. Nobody wants a reputation as a troublemaker. But speaking up is what prevents small wrongs from accumulating into huge ones.

With a natural tendency to want approval from our peers, we have the potential to be swept along with the prevailing tide. But equally, by resisting in small ways, we can subtly influence the tide’s direction.

Stephanie Hills ©


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