John Furlong, one of the keynote speakers at the PMI Congress in Dallas, shared a story highlighting how his father taught him about the importance of honesty in what we do as professionals.  That resonated with me and got me to thinking about “doing the right thing.”  Let me illustrate with a story of my own.

One of the habits that people develop is checking their mailbox as soon as they get to their home from work.  One day, many years ago, I came home from work to discover that there was no mailbox.  I saw a stump in place of it which lead me to the logical conclusion that someone must have run it over with his/her car.  After I parked my car and started looking for the mailbox, I found it at my door step with a small note.  The note read something like this “sorry I hit your mailbox as I was backing out of your neighbor’s driveway.  I rang the doorbell but nobody was home so please call me when you see this note so I can pay you for the damages.”  Shortly after reading the note I called the person who left it and discussed arrangements regarding him reimbursing me for the damages he caused to my mailbox.  Two days later, after the new mailbox had arrived and discovering the exact cost I called this person again to inform him of the amount.  Later in the afternoon my door bell rang and the man who had spoke to me on the phone was standing there with a a cash envelop containing the amount that covered the cost of the mailbox. What was remarkable I thought was the fact that this person, who clearly could hardly afford paying me back insisted on doing so because he felt obligated to rectify his mistake.  That day this man demonstrated that doing the right thing does not depend on other people forcing us to make the right decision or even someone else reporting us to the authorities.  Doing the right thing is a desire that comes from within based on our values and ethics.  That mane could have easily hit my mailbox, left my neighborhood, and not repay me for the damages.  Nobody saw him but he did not feel right about leaving without providing his contact information.

Throughout my career I’ve come across situations where people are faced with decisions related to ethics and doing the right thing.  Some of these issues are significant while others can be characterized as trivial.  It was always interesting to observe that in instances where the issue was very minor, certain individuals felt strongly about “doing the right thing” even if the impact was minimal and breaking policy/the law was not a big deal.  In those instances often these individuals did not have someone watching over their back to force them to do what is right, they just knew what they had to do.

During those times I am reminded that it is easy to do the right thing when others are watching, when there are higher authority figures who are there to provide those checks and balances, however, the true test of a professional is when that person does the right thing when nobody else is watching.