Feb 19, 2009

Integrity Begins With Small Things

When I was 16, a man in our church offered me a job for the Christmas holidays. A local department store needed extra help, and he wanted to hire me to sell small appliances there. 

I was surprised at the job offer because I knew absolutely nothing about small appliances. I made milk shakes with my mother's blender on occasion and used a hair dryer in the mornings. But that hardly made me an expert. The man assured me that he could easily teach me everything I needed to know for the job. That didn't seem possible, but I needed the money. And he was an adult. At 16, I had been taught to respect grownups, and I had faith in their wisdom and experience. 

We met at the department store the following Monday, and he took me to the small appliance department where they sold things like curlers, makeup mirrors, hair dryers, blenders, and toaster ovens. I received an official customer service badge from the department store and  simple instructions: 

"Whatever your badge says, you don't work for the store. You work for me. And I work for Brand X.* Just wander around the appliance section. When someone asks which appliance is the best, tell them Brand X is the best." 

According to this man, Brand X made the best toasters, blenders, deep fryers, curling irons, hair dryers, and blenders. Everything Brand X made was the best of its kind, and it was my job to tell this to the customers. 

And just like that, I was introduced to the dark side of the business world. Everyone was in on the con. The store agreed to allow Brand X employees to pose as customer service experts because they didn't have to pay for additional employees at Christmas. The real employees were briefed about our presence and were happy to let us interact with the customers. It made their jobs easier as well. 

I had a sense that something was wrong about the whole thing, but my trust of adults and authority was so deeply instilled that I put aside my sense of right and wrong and handed over my moral authority to the man who signed my paycheck. For two weeks, I dutifully patrolled my three or four aisles and posed as an expert in small appliance wares. 

What I was doing was clearly wrong. I was a liar and a fraud. But denial was so easy. The man who hired me was a family friend and a church member. He didn't seem the least bit ashamed of what we were doing. It was just business to him. The store managers and employees seemed to think it was okay. So it was easy for me to cede my responsibility to the authorities and go along. 

But my conscience told me the truth. I hated my job. I felt guilty about what I was doing. I found myself hoping that customers wouldn't ask me for help. It was a long two weeks, and I was so glad when they were over. I could have told my parents what was happening and quit the job.

I was in high school and really didn't need the money. But I didn't want to offend anyone or cause my parents to lose faith in a member of our church. It was easier to go along with the whole thing. So that's what I did. I told myself this wasn't a big deal. The Brand X products were probably as good as the others. No one was really getting hurt. I slipped across an important ethical line with hardly a second thought. 

The truth is, the small ethical dilemmas we face are very important. They prepare us to deal with harder, more complex issues with more at stake. Had I followed the leading of my conscience in this small and relatively easy circumstance, I might have found some of the more difficult decisions that I faced in the next few years easier to deal with.  

Small ethical decisions prepare us for the more important ones. If you can't stand your ground for the little things, you probably won't for the big ones. 

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*The manufacturer's name has been changed. 

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