A Question of Character

June 24, 2010 on 1:09 pm | In Ethics | Comments Off

A client recently provided me with an extremely onerous non-compete agreement that they had been provided by a potential employer. It seems this employer had hired some folks in the past who, when leaving the company, took key clients and client lists and proceeded to do harm to the company. Thus the management had this ridiculously stringent agreement drawn up that effectively barred anyone who signed it from working in their field (and possibly at all given the breadth of “any company that COULD become a government contractor”) for at least seven years. This caused me to reflect on the question of character.
Those who steal from a company, whether it is data, forms, lists, formats, supplies, or even time show that they lack character. An honest day’s wages for an honest day’s work. The entitlement mentality that is becoming more endemic to our society is troubling. We should not have to work, or if we do, not work hard. We should be guaranteed an education, a house, a car, and food on the table. Any effort on our part toward achieving those things is simply not required. Unemployment benefits can and should be extended indefinitely and union protections that force job security on even the incompetent are a right that everyone should have. And health care, well….., that is a right that is specifically called out in the constitution where it speaks to the right to life (liberty and the pursuit of happiness). We should all be guaranteed to live forever.
Sadly character is lacking in many people today. Get yours before someone else does.  Corporations are evil and it is your duty, no a right, to take advantage of them. Anything that can be converted to personal advantage should be, whether that is a pen and pad of paper from work to the company’s complete client list. When we teach negotiations there is invariably someone in the class who attended a prior seminar where they were told to ignore what they deserve and just get whatever they can get. Win-lose all the way.
When we teach negotiations we state explicitly: RULE #1 – Always enter every negotiation with your integrity intact. RULE #2 – Always leave every negotiation with your integrity intact. Sadly, too may people don’t have enough to begin with and it takes a long time to build a solid reputation. Nine of the top ten government contractors have been convicted of fraud. News reports come out weekly about someone who tried to get money for nothing (and chicks for free). Many are caught and punished, but many more escape notice. We will never wipe out improper or criminal activity. As James Madison said, “If all men were angels we would need no laws.” We are not angels.
What struck me about that non-compete agreement was that it was so onerous that no person of character could ever sign it. There was no way they could comply with its terms and to deny someone the right to make a living for seven years is just ridiculous. What this company had done was, first – hire the wrong people who lacked character and who ultimately took advantage of them. Second – they drafted an agreement intended to completely protect them from such unscrupulous people in the future. And third – (and this is the saddest part of the story) guaranteed that anyone who came to work for them and who was willing to sign such an agreement would be lacking character since in signing it they were acknowledging that they had no intention of adhering to it. Perhaps they would believe it to be unenforceable, or that they would never get caught, or that the company would not pursue them. Regardless of the reasoning, it takes a LACK of character to enter into such an agreement. The strength of character would be shown by the person who simply refused to sign it no matter how badly they needed the work. Those are the tough decisions, but they are also the situation where character counts.
I once advised a client that they should stop hiring for specific skills and start hiring for character. Their employees were constantly getting the employer in trouble with their clients for bad employee conduct – misappropriating client data, sexual harassment, porn on the computers, etc. It was a real cesspool. The owner did not feel the advice was worthy (and we dropped the client). They are still in business but at a fraction of the size they were. Character counts.
What have you done today to demonstrate your character? Are you happy with the character you are perceived to have? What can you do to be a person of character? Worthy thoughts for today.

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