Courage at the workplace

When you see something amiss in the organisation, display the courage to speak the truth, no matter what the consequences. 

Courage in the workplace… ” I heard this phrase for the first time in February 2000 when I was attending the World Training Conference at Atlanta. Rev Desmond Tutu was calling on the 4,000-odd HR leaders and training managers from across the world to display `Courage in the workplace’ and speak the truth in the interests of employees, organisation and society at large. I wish some of the folks from Enron and Worldcom had attended this one-hour talk. Then, maybe, the future of these two companies could have been different!

I was again reminded of the phrase `courage in the workplace’ when I read about the murder of Manjunath, the young MBA from IIM-Lucknow, who, in his quest for truth, had his life snuffed out by the oil mafia of our country. Like Manjunath, I am also an MBA and, like thousands of others in this country, I belong to this breed of professionals that fills the corporate world in India. The question I have for myself and all my colleagues is that in our careers — Do we also get the opportunity of displaying courage in the workplace? Do we show courage, when the opportunity arises?

The answer to the first question, in my view, is not very difficult. Yes, in our careers there are times when we do get an opportunity to display courage in the workplace. The trouble is that many of us choose not to recognise that opportunity.

Let me attempt to outline some possible instances where professionals who live in the corporate world can recognise the opportunity to display courage in the workplace. When an organisation decides to violate the law of the land to achieve benefits for itself, do we have the courage to speak up?

Whether it is paying bribes to lay cables across the roads, or it is discharging poisonous effluents into the environment on the sly, do we speak up and try to stop what’s happening. When an organisation is short-changing its customers by passing out poor quality products to customers, do the sales and marketing professionals speak up in the interest of the customer?

When an organisation is being unfair to its employees, by not sticking to the commitments it made, or coming out with policies which are unfair to the employees, do the HR managers of these companies speak up to protect the interests of employees? When you know that your boss is indulging in sexual harassment against a colleague of yours, do you have the courage confront your boss or report him to an ombudsman, if such a process exists in your organisation? So, as these instances show, the answer to the first question is

`Yes’; we do get an opportunity to display courage in the workplace at some time or the other in our career. However, the answer to the second question, `Do we show the courage’ is not easy. Many of us would like to believe we do, but we need to ask ourselves when the last time we displayed courage was.

Ethics and values

There are two kinds of organisations in our country — those which do not believe in following the path of ethics and values (though they may not admit so in public) and — those that do believe in following that path. For professionals who work in the former kind, where it is

well known that the organisation has no intention of following the path of ethics and values, the question is: Do you have the courage to change this organisation or if you cannot change this organisation, do you have the courage to leave the organisation? Many times the answer is not easy, since it is not easy to unshackle the golden chains with which such companies entrap professionals. Let us also acknowledge that in organisations where there is a genuine commitment towards the path of ethics and values, sometimes, the organisation or some of its managers do go astray from their core values and beliefs. The question is, when you see something unethical happening in this organisation, do you  have the courage to report it and stop it. In my career, I have met several professionals who have had the courage to speak the truth and stand up for their values.

In an organisation I worked in earlier, the corporate HR head of this well-known company (who was also my mentor), used to write detailed e-mails to his CEO (who is a pretty strong and well-known leader), describing to the CEO where he thought the CEO was going wrong, and where he needed to improve. It requires courage to tell your boss that he is wrong, and the reasons why you feel so.

I recently came across an ex-colleague and friend who had joined a reasonably well-known company in Bangalore around a year ago. This friend found out that his boss, who was the operations head of the company and the person who had hired and selected my friend, was short-circuiting the quality process in hiring and not following the company norms. My friend , first of all had the courage not to be party to these misdoings by his boss and he had the courage to report this to the CEO of the company. In both the above cases, the respective organisations valued the courage shown by these employees; the acts of courage were appreciated and not rebuked. This may not be the case in all organisations, and hence it requires courage to take the risk to speak the truth. I would like to believe that in our corporate world in India today, there is a tribe of professionals who have the courage to speak the truth and stand up for their values. However, this tribe can be bigger than what it is today.

Unfortunately, courage neither comes from doing a professional course like an MBA, nor does it come by successfully climbing the career ladder, but comes from the core being of who we are and what we stand for. Unfortunately, for many professionals, the years spent in the corporate world, blunts the ability to call on the courage that existed in us years ago. Our fast track careers, our plush lifestyles, our commitments to our families, make us ignore the call of courage. We forget that the call of courage is soft enough to be ignored, but sharp enough to prick our conscience when we do not heed it.

Call to corporate India

This is a call to all professionals in corporate India — let us make a commitment to ourselves that in our organisations, when we see something amiss with basic human values and ethics, we will display the courage to speak the truth, no matter what the consequences. And thereby build a corporate India where every professional displays the courage to speak the truth, and thus make our country a benchmark for the world. 

Shabbir Merchant