Sunday, December 05, 2010

Every choice you make defines you

The choices we make define us. Ideally, we're proud of these choices, recognizing that when faced with a challenging situation, we opted to do what we knew was right regardless of any fears about possible consequences.

But often, we find ourselves making choices that in retrospect we knew were wrong at the time. The effect of such decisions can linger long past the event. These choices define us, too.

Many years ago, when a reader from Wisconsin was the director of a not-for-profit organization, he found himself facing such a choice. His not-for-profit generated money by reselling used goods that were donated to his organization's resale store. My reader managed 50 employees and reported to a board of trustees consisting of a dozen people.

My reader recalls that the president of the board was "mean-spirited behind closed doors." Both the president and his girlfriend liked to be "stroked and flattered" and exhibited signs of "self-importance."

One day when the president and his girlfriend were visiting one of the not-for-profit's workshops, she noticed that her former brother-in-law was working there.

"She immediately grew hostile," my reader writes, "and told her boyfriend, the president, that she wanted him fired."

Several minutes later, the president told my reader that he had to fire the former brother-in-law. "There was no cause other than his girlfriend was demanding it. He told me I had to get rid of him by the end of the day."

If he didn't appease his boss, my reader was convinced he would become the target of the girlfriend's wrath. Fearing retaliation, my reader gave in and fired the former brother-in-law at the end of the day.

"I still carry the shame and self-disappointment that I allowed myself to be 'bullied' into doing this," my reader writes.

My reader knows he could have stood up to his boss and refused to fire the former brother-in-law. He feared, however, that the consequences of not doing so might have been worse for him. Even if he stood his ground, the president might still have had the brother-in-law fired by someone else. He could have stood up to his boss only to find both the former brother-in-law's and his own job in peril.

Years later, however, he finds himself haunted by his decision. He had a chance to choose what he believed was right, but when push came to shove, he caved and accommodated a boss he knew to be vindictive.

Granted, in an environment where jobs are scarce, the courage to stand up for an injustice brought to bear on someone else grows incredibly difficult when your own job may be on the line. We'd all like to think we'd have the conviction to do what we have no doubt to be right when faced with such a choice.

That one choice made years ago, in part, defines who my reader is today. "On that day, I lacked the courage to do the right thing," my reader writes. But the lingering effects of that one choice have bolstered his courage to choose to do the right thing even when he knows there might be risks. That one choice may partly define him, but it doesn't limit him from being able to recognize that he never wants to allow himself to be bullied into again making a choice he doesn't believe is the right thing to do.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

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(c) 2010 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

At least in today's climate of protections by EEOC and other legal remedies, no boss or company could pull such a wanton act of unfair employee dismissal. Even in the days when this situation took place, it is hard to believe that the fired employee could not have been able to seek legal redress for this firing. The example Jeff gives in today's column does present a dilemma requiring any working person in that situation the difficult moral choice, made even worse by our economy today.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC