Thursday, March 12, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - New Directions Caused by Unfortunate Circumstances

A friend of mine called me this evening to tell me about an extremely unfortunate incident at his place of work. It's something that I imagine a lot of people are facing these days: bad behavior. We read stories in the newspaper about the desperation of people in this economy - violent crime is up, bank robberies are rising, and bad practices of good businesses are being uncovered every day. My friend uncovered today that his company has been inflating top line sales by purchasing their own goods and writing off the expense. And now he is faced with a very serious ethical and legal dilemma. Say something or move on? For him, sticking around while this is happening is not something that he can do.

His situation is complicated by the fact that he works for a public company (and a troubled one at that) and he has no solid proof of the transactions in writing. This piece of information was conveyed on a conference call that he had the misfortune to be on - everyone on the call was aware that this had been happening except for him. He had wondered how his company sales could be going along okay, far better than the competition, at a time like this. Curiosity can sometimes uncover truths we never dreamed of and never wanted.

A friend of his said that clearly the Universe is sending him this information for a reason. Bombshells like this don't fall from the sky without a purpose. It is a moment of teaching. For some time, my friend has been considering whether or not the big corporate life is really for him. Originally he went into it for a lot of the same reasons many people went into it - to make a good living, good benefits, the chance to be promoted, the opportunity to work for a company with great influence on our society. Now with the fundamental shift in the marketplace that we are experiencing, the futures of those in corporate America may have shifted as well. Perhaps the days of easy living that so many experienced have passed us by. We have lived through and beyond the "good old days". Bob Dylan's most famous words never rang truer.

My friend is experiencing the hard, sad truth about some companies that we have admired for so long, held up as the gold standard in business: winning shows part of a company's character and losing (or at least not winning as easily or as big as it used to) shows all of it. My friend has considered striking out on his own and I think this most recent incident at work may push him to finally take the plunge.

He's been betting on his company for a long time - he's invested many years of his life with them and has been moving through the system as a good clip. Today he realized that the system he thought he was a part of is really smoke and mirrors. After the hurt and disbelief subsides, there is a huge lesson in all of this for him, and for all of us. Tomorrow he's cashing in his chips, walking away from the table, and making a new bet on himself and his own ideas. In a very serious tone he summed up the trade-off to me: "I may not get to win as big or as often as I imagined doing with this company, but at least I get to make the rules I live by and keep my integrity."

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