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Getting Ahead in the Workplace Doesn’t Mean Sacrificing Ethics

Professional success comes with betrayal or diplomacy, but either is a choice.

Recently I watched a horror film called Hunger in which a sadistic scientist kidnaps five people, throws them into a pit and waits to see what they will do without food over a prolonged period of time.

The background is that as a young boy, the “scientist” was in a car accident with his mother. For many weeks after dangling in the car from the side of a cliff, he resorted to cannibalism to survive, so he is desperate to understand the impulse and is willing to subject others to starvation to see if they behave similarly.

Of the five people, only one woman, a doctor, refuses to murder and eat her fellow captives to survive — she is adamant not to lose her humanity, even though she is desperately hungry and dying.

I won’t lie to you, the movie was gory and brutal, yet fascinating because in a sense, it’s not just in the pit and starving that people will resort to all sorts of “down and dirty” deeds to get ahead and survive.

In our organizations, we all know people who are hungry for power, the next promotion, a bigger raise, the bonus or the praise and recognition of others. And these people are seemingly willing to do whatever it takes to get it.

It’s funny, some colleagues even refer to these people in a cautionary sense, by saying that they “don’t play nice in the sandbox” — almost like young children, the notion of teamwork and sharing is not fully developed in them.

What do these hungry people look like in the office? Behaviorally, they may steal ideas from others, badmouth colleagues, undermine others’ successes, withhold vital information or cooperation and otherwise back-stab their co-workers, bosses or staff members. In short, their success is paramount.

Thankfully, there are other people who do have a sense of decency, fairness, empathy, teamwork and right versus wrong. And they are not willing to stoop to cannibalistic-type behavior to get ahead — instead, doing right is more important than always being seen as right.

In truth, humanity can be sold for very little, with justifications for doing the wrong thing ranging from I earned it, deserve it, came from relative deprivation, was mistreated, am just fighting back, have no choice and many more.

Similar to the captives in the pit without food, people can be very hungry and literally may see their very survival as depending on choosing themselves over others (i.e., survival of the fittest). This is also another justification for their actions.

But if even under conditions of starvation, some people are able to overcome the hunger and urge to take from someone else so they can survive, then we, in less dramatic and drastic circumstances, can choose our timeless humanity over some finite successes.

Everyone is hungry — the world, even today with advanced technology, still has scarce resources — but our ultimate test, perhaps, is whether we act like animals toward each other or as decent human beings: generously, graciously and with respect and dignity — inside and outside the office.

Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.