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The majestic Grand Canyon | Photo by Bruce Weinstein

Imagine that a fire broke out at your desk, and none of the fire extinguishers in your building worked.  What would you do?

That was the question that Marvin, the new director of the fire safety department at a large company, wanted to make sure never arose.  When he was going through the contracts from various vendors, Marvin noticed that the one who supplied the company’s many fire extinguishers had never inspected them. Marvin called the vendor, Randy, to find out what was going on.

“You’re supposed to inspect them,” Randy said.

“Um, no I’m not. That’s your job,” Marvin replied.

Randy then explained how previous fire safety directors had handled the issue. “All you have to do, Marvin, is go through the building, take a look at the extinguishers, and make a note on where you checked the extinguisher,” Randy said. “Then count how many you inspected, let me know how many there are, and I’ll send you a check.”

“Wait a minute,” Marvin said. “You’re telling me that after I inspect our fire extinguishers, you’ll send a check to me, not to my company?”

“That’s right,” Randy stated, presumably expecting Marvin to exclaim, “Sign me up!” But that’s not how Marvin responded.

Instead he said, “All right, I can’t attest to what happened before me, but immediately two things have to happen. Number one, you have to send people to inspect these fire extinguishers. Number two, if you ever suggest anything dishonest like that to me again, I am going to drop you like a bad habit and you’ll never get work here again.”

Imagine a thoughtless employee lighting a small candle on a birthday cupcake intended for a coworker. The employee blows out the match and tosses it into a wastepaper basket that’s half full. As he leaves his desk to deliver the treat to his coworker, that match, which is still smoldering, rapidly ignites the contents of the trash can.

This is the kind of problem that fire extinguishers are meant to solve, but if Marvin hadn’t stood up to the corrupt vendor, and the nearest fire extinguisher wasn’t functional, what’s might have happened? How many lives would have been permanently altered by a building fire, and how much damage would the business have sustained? What would the company’s legal liability have been when the reason for the faulty extinguisher was discovered? How would its reputation have been tarnished, and what would it take to win it back? All of these questions would arise simply because a fire extinguisher wasn’t replaced when it should have been.

I love opening my keynote speeches and training sessions on ethics with this story, because it’s so inspiring.  I’d like to think I would do what Marvin did, and I’ll bet you would too.

Courageous employees like Marvin make the lives of compliance and ethics officers easier because they are willing to

  • tell managers things they need to know, even though they might not want to know them;
  • fight for their clients and business;
  • do unpleasant but necessary things; and
  • ask for help.

The following questions and suggestions may be useful in job interviews and performance reviews for evaluating a candidate or employee’s commitment to courage.  The questions are courtesy of Bill Treasurer, founder of Giant Leap Consulting, Inc., and author of Courage Goes to Work.

Describe a time when you had to disagree with someone in authority and stand your ground. What was the situation? How did the other person react? What did you do?

Bill says managers who ask these questions should pay attention to how the respondents portray themselves. An authentic response will probably include a reference to vulnerability. Courage, Bill notes, isn’t the absence of fear; fear goes hand in hand with doing courageous things. Standing up to someone in a position of authority or influence, as Marvin did with the dishonest vendor, would be frightening for a lot of people.

In The One-Minute Manager, Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson present the “praise down/criticize up” model of management. This upends the traditional arrangement in which direct reports extol the virtues of their bosses, and bosses have the freedom to find fault with their direct reports. Blanchard and Johnson say that if companies are to succeed, their leaders must welcome disagreement, even — or especially — from their subordinates.

The corrupt fire-extinguisher salesman was Marvin’s boss in the sense that companies are beholden to suppliers as well as to clients: no supplies, no business. Marvin criticized up and stood his ground, and now his story is repeated in the company’s orientation sessions.

Marvin stood his ground with the vendor not because Marvin was stubborn or wanted to feel powerful, but because he believed that what the vendor was asking him to do was wrong and could have lethal consequences. That’s courage at its best, and a job candidate who has done something along these lines is, like Marvin, one of the Good Ones.  (Recall that the Good Ones are high-character employees whose commitment to honesty, care, courage, and other moral qualities benefits their employers, their clients, and themselves.)

Tell me about a time when a direct report pushed back on you and felt strongly about a position. What was the situation? What did they say, and how did you react?

This question, Bill says, aims to get a sense of the type of leader the candidate is. Does he or she invite people to speak their minds? It takes a strong leader to admit to the possibility that he or she is mistaken or hasn’t thought a matter through thoroughly enough. “McKinsey & Company is one company that prides itself on constructive disagreement,” Bill notes, adding that in his experience this is a rare trait in corporate culture.

The best leaders, Bill observers, welcome principled pushback. “They don’t want to be surrounded by sycophants and yes people. Otherwise, they’ll be closed off from the good information they need to make good decisions. That’s why they do well to listen to people who have enough backbone to resist going along with dunderheaded ideas.” Having less power and authority may explain why direct reports don’t always speak up when something bothers them. But that doesn’t justify the practice.

This essay, an excerpt from my book, The Good Ones: Ten Crucial Qualities of High-Character Employees, is the fourth in a series of blog posts on how to hire high-character people.  The first three were How to Hire Honest PeopleHow to Hire Accountable People, and How to Hire Caring People.  Next time, we’ll look at what it means to be a courageous person and how to evaluate this quality in job applicants and current employees.

As a business ethics speaker and trainer, I work with organizations that want to do the right thing every time and that know the key to their success is the high character of their employees.Download a summary of my presentations here. Book me to speak or present a webinar to your group here. Call me at 646.649.4501 (U.S.)