Leadership and the Moral Compass

As a leader, when you encounter a team member whose moral compass seems to be pointing in the wrong direction, how do you handle it? Early in my career, my compass got a little off track and I’m forever grateful to the leader who helped me regain direction.

My first job out of college was with a department store chain based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  A man named Mike, who was the regional director of human resources for the retailer, was one of the first mentors in my professional life.  He was an unassuming man with a rapier-sharp wit who showed me how to lead with character. Mike taught by encouragement and humor, not by pontificating. I can still clearly recall a phone conversation that could have gone very wrong, but because of Mike’s leadership skill, turned into a lesson I carry with me today.

Here’s what happened. I was the Assistant Personnel Manager for one of the retailer’s suburban department stores, which had a restaurant within the store. The restaurant’s manager Al called me to say that he’d seen one of his employees taking a glass of soda pop from the restaurant after the stored closed. Evidently, this employee had a history of helping himself to soda pop and had been warned that if he did it again, he’d be fired. So Al was calling me to ask if it was time to fire him.

My boss, the store’s Personnel Manager, was on vacation so I called Mike to bring him into the loop. I explained the situation and asked for counsel. Mike said that I was to begin the termination process.

I was surprised. Firing a guy for taking a glass of soda pop seemed so extreme. “Mike, really? We’re going to fire him?” Mike reminded me that the employee had been warned (in writing) of the consequences of his actions. Still, I persisted—“Mike, it just seems so unfair—can’t we give him one more chance?”

“Well, I’ll tell you what . . .” Mike said in that low-key way he had. “What about this? How about if we let all 200 of the associates at your store help themselves to whatever item they want in the store? Would that be a good way to run the business?”

That put it into perspective very quickly.

It wasn’t the dollar value of what the employee stole, it was the fact that he stole from the company.

No lecturing about protecting company assets, no reminders about our obligations as human resources managers. Just a simple question that brought the issue into crystal clear focus: to act with integrity means to do so all the time, regardless of the relative weight of the infraction.

Why does this lesson stay with me all these years later?

Mike held up a mirror to my integrity, but he did so in a non-threatening way. Even though we were discussing whether or not to fire an employee, the subtext to the conversation was, “Jennifer, what do you stand for?” The needle of my moral compass was off track that day; Mike helped me get it pointing back in the right direction. And he did so without shaming me, which is incredibly important when dealing with the sensitive subject of someone’s integrity.

When you are faced with helping a colleague examine beliefs that underpin their integrity, do so with positive intention and kind regard, but by all means do so. To do any less would be to fall short in your role as a leader. Not only does their integrity depend on you taking action, but your integrity depends upon it as well.


photo credit: istockphoto.com

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