Originally posted 4/16/10

I've decided that I'm probably a lot better at doling out advice to others than I am at identifying my own shortcomings and blindspots. Additionally, doing so is much more enjoyable than submitting oneself to self-examination or criticism. With that disclaimer in mind, tonight I want to talk about personal honor and corporate honor, and specifically what we owe to employers.

This post was inspired by a dinner I had with a friend, R., who is struggling with the core dishonesty that revolves around demanding commitments from individuals by representatives of corporations, who have no intention or means to follow through with rewards for a job well done. 

Let's start this with the posing of a hypothetical --
If a corporate representative (undoubtedly somewhere higher in the organization) asks an employee to make a commitment (for example -- take on a particularly tough assignment, move his family across the country, or step back from his current responsibilities in the promise of further development and the promise of bigger and better opportunities in the future), what does the individual owe to the company, and what does the company owe to the individual?

The individual owes the company NOTHING, particularly if the commitment was obtained under false pretenses, which it frequently is. Even if the manager in the company that extracted the commitment was honest in his intent, the corporation itself, may not back the manager, effectively creating a situation where the commitment was falsely obtained. The company actually has an obligation to the individual who went the extra mile on its behalf (or at least put best efforts toward doing so), but since companies are not people, there is no one to grab and hold accountable to a debt of conscience in such instances.

There must be a course somewhere (I think I missed this one somewhere along the lines of my education), where CEO's, presidents, and other senior managers learn how to pinch employees and extract commitments from them that are patently unfair and one sided. A typical example would be -- "I need you to commit to turning this mess around. I'm picking you because I know you are the best person to take on this challenge. But I need to know now, are you committed to making this a success." Because of the way that many of us have been brought up, with the notion that our word is our bond, we believe that a promise extracted under these circumstances is binding on us.

Too often, when the individual succeeds at the difficult task, often through much personal sacrifice and family sacrifice, the company (and those who run it) rationalize away the just rewards deserved for the extra effort. "That was in his job description", "He needed to do that to earn a chance to move up", and the ever popular "his salary is governed by market economics" most of the time, these are the words that are spoken to justify a muted reward. Better be prepared to be satisfied by a pat on the back.

If the individual fails -- regardless of the circumstances, he is certainly headed for the exits, with the only thing holding the company back being some small amount of additional sweat that they believe that they can extract in the individual's short remaining time. Or worse, senior management doesn't tell the individual where they truly stand, and so they continue to impress, perform and deliver results, despite the fact that in reality they are already 'dead men walking', already judged by those that make such judgments.

In this environment, how is one to operate? First off, make sure that all commitments are well understood on both sides -- what will you give and what will you get. And if you find yourself in a position where the commitment of the company was weak enough that they can weasel out of actually providing any reward for work well performed, then ask yourself honestly -- what binds me to honor a promise to an organization that proves themselves over and over to be fundamentally without honor. Then act accordingly.