Maintaining Personal Integrity at the Job

“Rather fall with honor than succeed by fraud.” – Sophocles

To be truly successful, you must have great personal integrity. Although you may know people who seem to profit from personal treachery or shady dealings, their success is unlikely to last. Integrity is critical to maximum career advancement. I’m talking about being trustworthy, ethical, honest, and dependable to the core – and most importantly, being consistently so. Others glimpse your personal integrity through your behavior, reputation, life-style, scruples, morals, ethics, and personal and social maturity.

You may think you have little control over your integrity – that your character is hereditary, like eye color or intelligence. You may believe that integrity is a function of your environment (that you will be no better or worse than those who raised you or than the friends with whom you grew up). Indeed, heredity, environment, and culture influence your character. Nonetheless, your attitudes and behavior are ultimately yours to control. They are your responsibility, and others will judge you accordingly.

Here are some thoughts and actions that will help cultivate your integrity.
Learn to like yourself!
“To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.” – Oscar Wilde
Look in the mirror each day and say something positive about yourself. Praise and reward yourself for jobs well done. Compliment yourself for good ideas. If this feels funny, it shows that you need to practice self-praise more regularly. We all need daily, positive “strokes.” All too often, we may be the only available source! At the same time, don’t kid yourself. Praise yourself for the strengths you possess and resolve to attain the strengths you need to develop.

Don’t put yourself down or speak negatively about yourself. It’s self-demeaning and contagious! When you make mistakes, remind yourself that you’re still evolving. With every mistake, choose to learn from it. This moves you closer toward personal success. When you build self-esteem, you generate self-confidence. This becomes the key to optimum performance. Three excellent books in this area are The Psychology of High Self-esteem by Nathaniel Branden, I’m OK-You’re OK by Thomas Harris, and Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill.

A friend of mine once learned the importance of self-esteem the hard way. He came to me as a business development manager earning $85,000 annually (15% more than average in his field). I presented him with the exact opportunity that he needed in order to achieve his long-term career goal of becoming a Division Manager. Although his credentials were impeccable, he became intimidated because his peers viewed him as too inexperienced. He started reminding himself of all of his shortcomings (as he and others saw them) – steadily losing confidence all the while.

He choked in the big interview when asked about his shortcomings and why they should hire him over an incumbent VP of Operations. With self-esteem on his side, he could have answered the question with confidence and could have won the job.

Bridges are not for burning
Your career depends on constructive, supportive relationships. We all run across people we can’t tolerate, but being vindictive or hostile can cripple your career. Don’t let anyone’s attacks or negative attitude rattle you. Instead, forgive and forget. Move ahead only with a clear conscience. You never know who may reappear (to your dismay) somewhere down the road.

I knew a Vice President of Finance who had gone far within six years after college graduation. His technical abilities were outstanding, but his people skills were only average. My friend was closing on an out-of-town job opportunity, which would have made him the youngest Senior Vice President in a major utility company. After the final (very promising) interview, the firm checked additional references. In his previous career, apparently he had alienated an office clerk who had since left the company to become Secretary to a senior executive. This executive was a good friend of the potential employer. When the clerk described her run-in with the candidate, he was removed from consideration. Had my friend cleared up that old relationship, I believe that he would have had the job.

Go the extra mile
“The idle are a peculiar kind of dead who cannot be buried.” – Chinese proverb
For maximum career advancement, do more than you are required to do and deliver more than you promise. If you do only what you’re paid to do, you’re entitled to nothing extra. So if your boss needs you to do an extra hour of work, give two hours. If your client needs a longer warranty, give him that and more. If your sales quota is $20,000 per month, sell $25,000. Giving more is the quickest way to getting more.

I have a client with whom our firm has done business for five years. Over that time, several occasions arose in which our client needed us to consult with them. We normally charge fees for such consultations, but waived them to affirm our loyalty and commitment to their long-term interests. On occasion, we even referred candidates for appropriate job opportunities at no charge, again for the same reason. Do we calculate the cost to us? Does it always pay off? No. But when we hold the client’s best interest in mind, we generally win in the long run.

Bring enthusiasm to everything you do
“If you aren’t fired with enthusiasm, you will be fired with enthusiasm.” – Vince Lombardi
Enthusiasm is critical to success in everything you do, not only for yourself, but also for those around you. Enthusiasm draws others to you. Positive energy is always contagious. We all respect those with passion: passion to live, and passion to love. By bringing enthusiasm to the workplace, you spread sunshine. People with enthusiasm are persuasive, and communicate self-confidence. People are always more persuaded by the depth of our beliefs and emotions than by any logic or knowledge we possess. Persuasion isn’t converting people to your way of thinking. It’s converting them to your feelings and beliefs. Enthusiasm sends a clear message to others that you like who you are, who they are, and what you’re doing. Monitor your enthusiasm throughout your workday and see how effective you are in getting support from your peers, bosses, and subordinates.

Your appearance does make a difference
Management may not know much about your work, but they see your appearance. Right or wrong, people judge you by how you look. Do a personal evaluation on your appearance. Chances are, you can improve your appearance substantially by simply paying closer attention to the details. Try to look your best whenever you leave your home. Choosing higher-quality clothing, keeping your hair cut, being clean-shaven, shining you shoes, and wearing a smile will make a big difference in your overall presence. For work, I recommend you mimic the dress code of your senior management. If anything, dress a bit more conservatively than the top brass at your company.

A good compendium of image books and consultant is Professional Image Publications by Jacqueline Thomas, Staten Island, NY.

Executive etiquette is more than manners
“A good conversationalist is not one who remembers what was said, but says what someone wants to remember.” – J.M. Brown
Personal integrity includes knowing and practicing proper etiquette. There are proper behaviors for every business situation, and it is incumbent upon you to learn and practice it. Letitia Baldridge’s book, Complete Guide to Executive Manners, Rawson Associates, NY, 1985, will help you develop poise and grace.

I have personally seen professionals lose career opportunities because they had poor table manners. By happy contrast, I’ve also seen a candidate demonstrate such a command of etiquette that he won an outstanding position.

The candidate and I were invited to a private function hosted by the prospective employer. Many respected individuals were in attendance. He had dressed properly for the occasion, understood the art of business entertaining, was effective and courteous in his conversation, showed grace and poise in dining, remembered people’s names – in short, did everything right. What won him the job was an act of perception that went beyond mere good manners. As the meal progressed, an older gentleman sitting in the corner went almost unnoticed until my candidate took the time to draw him out. As it turns out, this retiree had been highly successful decades before, and relished the opportunity to talk about it with such an interested dinner partner.

As toasts were shared, my candidate toasted the accomplishments and stature of his new friend. This won over the retiree’s proud daughter, who also happened to be the wife of the host. Her endorsement helped my candidate to win the job.

Develop a personal code of ethics
“If you are not big enough to lose, you are not big enough to win.” – Walter Reuther
Establish your own code of ethics, and be willing to hold your ground regardless of temptation or cost. Let others know what standards you live by, and do not disappoint them or yourself.

The most respected and admired people are always the “good guys” who win ethically. Short-term gain cannot justify the risk of losing our reputation or the victory in having won by fraud. In my experience, ethical missteps may be the most common cause for career stagnation. Once your integrity is open to question, in even a single incident, there is little hope for forgiveness in a competitive, unforgiving marketplace.

Our firm encounters numerous candidates who are well qualified, but cannot be placed due to breaches of conduct. Theft of time and assets, unprofessional outbursts, overindulgence of alcohol at business and social functions, lies of omission, and other such indiscretions, are all unacceptable.

I can’t give you the moral strength required to always make the right choices. I can, however, suggest an easy yardstick you can use. Before you act or yield to temptation, imagine yourself in the final interview for your dream job. Would what you say or do improve your chances of advancement?

Is your word bond?
“The price of greatness is responsibility.” – Winston Churchill
People who do what they say they will do – the people you know you can count on – are the most highly valued employees wherever they work. Emulate them.

It’s in your day-to-day interest to always come through. This gives you the grounds to expect the same of others. After all, your commitments often depend on your coworkers’ efforts. It is not good enough to do (what you promise) only part of the time. It can cost you credibility. So be conservative with your promises. I once presented an exceptional job opportunity to an architect. She was happily employed and not looking. After lengthy discussions, she decided that the new opportunity was indeed for her.

Her interviews resulted in an offer. She accepted. Upon turning in her resignation, she received a counteroffer, which she also accepted despite our vigorous counseling that counteroffers are recipes for disaster. Within six months, her old firm replaced her as being overpriced and disloyal. The firm that previous courted her for six months shunned her as being untrustworthy. After accepting their offer, she had gone back on her word. Don’t make the same mistakes.

Punctuality shows respect
“80% of life is showing up.” – Woody Allen
People like to be treated with respect. In business, punctuality is deemed more important than good manners. It is a clear way to demonstrate good faith. By meeting your time commitments, you build belief that other promises and contracts are trustworthy.

Try not to make time commitments that you cannot keep. If you will be late, call beforehand to re-schedule. I’ve seen good jobs lost because the candidate ignored this simple courtesy.

Confidential indiscretion
“There is no right way to do something wrong.”
No chapter on integrity would be complete without addressing the subject of “confidential indiscretion”. If there is one thing that can destroy a promotion (or even a career), it is earning a reputation for being indiscreet. It can take only one breach of confidence to lose the trust of a valued associate or employer. Breaches of confidence – whether company trade secrets, client privileges, gossip, or simple jest – can leave you marked for the duration of your career. These violations are not easily forgiven.

Interviewers will often look for bad-mouthing and sharing of company secrets during interviews. Many interviewers consider the inability to keep confidential information secret, the worst breach of integrity – worse than lying or stealing.

Evaluate yourself to see if you share secrets or gossip in order to gain attention. If you feel that improvement is needed, work to develop the necessary self-confidence and maturity to resist the temptations of tale bearing.

Quality first
“The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.” – John Ruskin
American business seems to have sacrificed quality in pursuit of short-term profits. The quick fix, the fast buck, the quest for instant gratification, has created many problems that we now have to face as a nation and as a part of the world economy. We have been providing less for more, while our competitors focus on providing more for less.

I’m convinced this decade will show a recommitment to quality in our values, education, service, and products. Play a leading role in this trend.

Play with a winning attitude
“Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to win is.” – Vince Lombardi
Your attitude is your choice. Anxiety, fear, worry, guilt, motivation, enthusiasm, and happiness are all reactions that we permit ourselves to experience. You may feel that you have been dealt some bad cards in life. But, it’s up to you not to dwell on them. Hold quick “funerals” for your disappointments. Forget them and move on.

Our attitude is not determined by circumstances, but by how we respond to circumstances. Don’t be a victim of your past. You can change your attitude, by changing the way you react to the events around you. Even stress is only a product of how you perceive, define, and react to the world.

Our greatest power is the power to choose! We can decide where we are, what we do, and what we think. No one can take the power to choose away from us. It is ours alone. We can do what we want to do. We can be who we want to be. Respect other people’s opinions, but don’t allow others to define who you are. If you base your self-image on others’ approval, break the pattern. Rejection is a part of life. No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. One of the best guides I’ve read on attitude improvement is the classic The Power of Positive Thinking by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale.

Get motivated
Motivation is fundamental to achievement in any field. As I have noted, it’s far easier to generate motivation when your job interests you, calls on your strengths, and presents achievable challenges. But great achievers bring motivation to almost everything they do. They believe they can succeed. You, too, are capable of great achievement, but you must begin by choosing to succeed.

The article above was written by construction recruiter Frederick Hornberger, CPC, president of Hornberger Management Company in Wilmington, Delaware (, a construction recruiter specializing in senior level, executive search.