Monday, October 13, 2008

Integrity in the Workplace

Let's put this post under the general topic of "Druid ethics," maybe... even though that may send a few people shuddering off to some other, less presumptuous blog where they talk mostly about altars and ritual and attending the Druid version of weekly Mass. Or maybe, if it makes you feel better, we can just put this in the "things that should be better about the world" category, or the "how to be decent to one another" category. Really, all this is about, in the end, is realizing that spirituality is part of daily life. Simple as that.

The concept of integrity--of integration, of being whole--is an important (dare I say integral) aspect of my spiritual life. It doesn't involve sitting down for meditation everyday and willing myself to be whole, it doesn't involve elaborate rituals to establish and ensure my wholeness. The funny thing about integrity is, if I'm not doing it all the time, every waking moment of my mundane life, then... well, it doesn't really count, does it? If integrity is only something I have when I'm "being spiritual" then it's not really wholeness. So this is one way that I work to bring a spiritual meaning to every aspect of my life. As long as I am working towards wholeness and an integrity of being (integrity writ large is nothing other than harmony, really--harmony in the web and weave of existence), then I am practicing my spirituality, even if it doesn't involve complex rituals or summoning the gods.

This may come as a surprise to many of you, but recently I've noticed a startling lack of integrity in the workplace. I know! Who would have ever imagined?! I'm sure you're as shocked and dismayed as I am about this. But I'll give you, in case you're not sure (and thus not shocked by) what I'm talking about, a few recent examples.

Take iTunes for instance. The other week, I left a negative review on one of my favorite TV shows, not because I don't like the show, but because the price for a "season pass" had doubled since last year (now, purchasing a season's worth of episodes actually costs twenty dollars more than the DVDs, and that's for a poorer quality file that can only be played on a select number pre-authorized computers, without any DVD extras or commentaries). The next day, what do I find downloading onto my computer via iTunes' automatic update, but two free episodes of that very show. No notice from iTunes (or the television network that owns and most likely authorized the free download). I feel cheap, as if someone just tried to buy me off. Whereas before I might have considered springing for the show anyway, now I feel annoyed that they would presume to send me files I didn't ask for instead of confronting the fact that their prices may be unfair.

That's not such a big deal, of course, just one small example. But something happened today at work which brought the issue a bit too close to home.

And this is where I could get into some trouble. Because, to reference Arendt on the strange American paradox of "the co-existence of political freedom and social oppression"--the last person to complain about the company I work for on a public blog (though she did so anonymously and, apparently, discreetly) was fired. I know this because there was, at the time, a rumor going around that it was me. People knew I "blogged" because I'm "a writer." They don't know, of course, that I'm also a Druid and therefore slightly more suspect than the average Christian citizen. This is only one more example of a lack of integrity in the workplace. Certainly there should be some forum for honest discussion of an employer's flaws and faults? Everyone knows that rarely is a work environment perfect, let alone fair or free of discrimination.

In any case, all of my wonderful readers must now promise not to turn me in. Fair enough? If I lose my job, I won't be able to afford internet access, and my blogging will cease. And then won't you be sorry? So.

The price of oil is up. The price of everything is up, actually. We all know this, let's be fair. I work at a family diner. I serve breakfast, mostly. Recently, our prices have been going up to reflect the growing expense of food and the grease it's quite often deep fried in (see: hashbrowns, french fries, cod fish sandwiches, etc.). I try to avoid fried foods because they're so damn bad for you, but frankly, they've become a staple food in the American diet. Most of my customers understand the price increases, shrug their shoulders and deal with it. Most of my customers are regulars, though, and I've gotten into the habit of being honest with them. A manager once caught me answering the "how are you?" question with, "Well, I'm good, but I had a rough weekend, so I'm a bit tired." How dare I actually admit to the human sensation of fatigue!? I'm supposed to be the all-smiling, all-serving, all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world. Or... wait, no, that's Tyler Durden. Anyway.

Today, I was honest with a customer, and it almost got me fired. The price of the grease we use to fry foods has been going up, much faster than the price of the food on the menu (we'd probably lose more money if we tried to print new menus each time there was a cost increase, so we just hold our breath--by "we" I mean the Company--and hope it all evens out by the end of each financial period). So the Company's response to these expenses is to conserve oil by changing it less frequently. The result: limp, overly greasy french fries. Sorry folks, but when you dip potatoes in boiling oil over and over, that's what you're bound to get. Call it "going green," call it what you want. One day, you're going to have to choose between crisp golden french fries and the real cost of the food you take for granted.

Today, a very nice, polite young couple out for lunch complained that their fries "looked old" and asked for a new order. So I explained to them that the fries were actually very fresh, I explained about the increasing costs and how "corporate" has required us to change our cooking oil less frequently in an attempt to conserve and save money. I explained that it takes up to an hour to clean out and change the deep fryer and the next cleaning couldn't be done until tonight. I explained that the french fries were perfectly edible, of course, but if they just didn't look appealing maybe they might want to try something that wasn't deep fried--grilled homefries, perhaps, or steamed vegetables, or some soup (our soups are usually pretty good). They asked to see a manager.

My manager came back screaming at me--"You don't tell customers our grease is dirty!"

This is the first time--believe it or not--that I've been reprimanded for telling the truth to a customer. Usually, both the customer and the manager are more sympathetic. (It's sad, though, that the truth requires sympathy these days...)

But I was angry and offended, nonetheless. Here's where that whole "integrity" thing comes in. I snapped back, before I could stop myself, "Well, what do you want me to say? The grease is old! Do you want me to make up a new lie for everything they order, each time I have to serve it looking like crap? What am I supposed to say? What lie am I supposed to tell them?"

Here's the thing--it certainly isn't about the money, but really, I make barely more than $2.50 an hour, that's how little the Company values my service. They tell us to always value the customer and sympathize with him or her--and I do. Except, I don't just pretend to, I actually care about my customers. My customers are the people who really keep me fed and clothed and housed, and I'm more inclined to side with them when management asks me to lie and wheedle them into ordering food that isn't good for them and won't even taste decent. I'm more inclined to be honest with them and treat them with respect, than to coddle them and "kiss ass"--in part because that's just the way I interact with people, but also because honesty and respect are all too rare these days.

And this is what it comes down to. My manager picked up the check for that nice young couple, and they didn't bother to tip. Instead, they got increasingly sulky and rude, picking at their perfectly good burgers until they felt it was time to leave.

Integrity goes both ways. Why should we expect companies to have integrity when we cannot exercise integrity and respect as consumers? Plenty of corporations have gotten filthy rich by treating their customers and clients like spoiled children, dangling distracting treats and pacifiers in front of them whenever the least complaint arises, catering to the shaky self-esteem and insecurities of a population that holds a paradoxical expectation of somehow "deserving" to be treated like royalty while secretly fearing they're not really good enough to be treated like mature, intelligent human beings capable of making important decisions on their own.

Later today, because some of the schools were out for Columbus Day, we had a lunch rush with lots of small children. At one table, a family sat chowing down while their little one, strapped into his highchair, stared zombie-like into the buzzing screen of a portable DVD player propped up inches from his face, running scenes from "Ratatouille," in which a rat knows more about eating healthy than most American kids these days. When I brought the kids their free cookies at the end of the meal, the little thing practically choked on a grape that he attempted to spit out directly onto the table in order to stuff the sugar-coated round bit of crumby cardboard pastry into his mouth.

Is this what we want to be? Infantile, distracted, unable to swallow what's good for us, choking on and spitting up anything that isn't convenient and sugary sweet?

Understand, I do sympathize. That's part of the whole integrity thing, too. I completely understand how easy it is to lapse back into the selfish, insecure entitlement of childhood, or the selfish, insecure entitlement of the worker trying to please the boss by double-crossing the consumer so that they can earn enough to be a good consumer in their turn. But there's a cycle here that must be broken. And basic respect can break it, most effectively. You'd be amazed how positively most people respond to being treated decently as fellow human beings. You'd be surprised how much they appreciate sincerity, how great a relief it is from all the bullshit we're surrounded by everyday.

And of course, I lied, I didn't almost get fired. The Company wouldn't fire me--I make them too much money. I'm a good worker, a really good worker, because mostly I like my job and I care about doing well and working hard, not for the Company's sake but because it's the kind of person I am, the kind of person I want to be. My customers like me, because I honestly like them. You can't buy that kind of work ethic or sincerity, that kind of personal integrity.

And people aren't so far gone that they can no longer tell the difference. Anyway, at least not yet.

5 comments:

  1. wow that is really something. You are absolutely right. And perhaps the restaurant needs to examine where it cuts its costs.

    Integrity is hard to live, given that there is the larger group and the individual. I guess this will play out further in your work, which is with people. You have lots of skill, and your words prove it.

    To me, to act with integrity is to act within your values. Sometimes that is in conflict with the world, sometimes it is not.

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  2. visionpat@aol.com10/14/2008 2:55 PM

    Outstanding!

    This piece ranks with any in our thick files on integrity at work from people of all faiths, in all types of work.

    I love your definition of integrity and "integral" practices.

    May we post this, with comments, at spiritandworkresourcecenter.com, as a great example of the most-needed spiritual practice at work today? And if you have Druid insights about ethical, satisfying work, please pass them on! Thanks, Pat McHenry Sullivan

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  3. Pat, I suppose it's all right if you post this (with a link back here, kindly?)... I am certainly very flattered. :) Though I was only half-joking about my concern regarding work-related blogging, sadly it is a lurking danger. I trust your website won't exacerbate the problem, at least... So yes, please do go ahead and repost, if you like. :)

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  4. Charlene, yes, I agree about the cost-cutting priorities. It seems a lot of companies are jumping on the "going green" bandwagon (or the "let's not drown during this economic crisis" bandwagon, if you prefer), and a lot of important questions aren't being asked and explored.

    What you say about integrity having to do with values is important, and I think I agree... at least a little. To me, the idea that integrity and harmony are related is an important one. The Western concept of integrity too often implies a picture of someone (some man, usually) standing strong and alone against a corrupt world. I find this image to be somewhat misleading. Back in college, during a course on Chinese Religious Traditions, I discovered that the Taoist refer to the concept of "integrity" a great deal, but in an entirely different way. To a Taoist, integrity means learning how to integrate with the world around you, rather than trying to separate from it. This integration teaches a person when a particular action is appropriate, and when it is futile or damaging. Holding strong to your values, then, is really about putting the world and its reality at the heart of what you do, and being willing to rethink and revise and act responsively to ever-changing conditions. Integrity-as-harmony is more about listening and attending than it is about resisting a world that's "wrong." Sometimes when we find ourselves in conflict with the world, really we're only in conflict with ourselves and our beliefs about how the world ought to be.

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  5. Integrity-as-harmony is more about listening and attending than it is about resisting a world that's "wrong."

    Yep. Wu wei (commonly translated as non-action or non-doing) doesn't mean "doing nothing"; it means not *choosing*, so that (assuming one is a sage :), one's actions are always in harmony with the Tao.

    Sometimes when we find ourselves in conflict with the world, really we're only in conflict with ourselves and our beliefs about how the world ought to be.

    This is a powerful statement.

    That course sounds fascinating! I took a general survey of Eastern religions course 20+ years ago, but it covered so much ground that it couldn't go too deeply into anything.

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