ValueSpeak: Is there such a thing as extreme when it comes to integrity?

Published: Friday, Feb. 7 2014 5:00 p.m. MST

I just wanted to give my guests a bagel.

Honest. That’s all I wanted to do.

I wasn’t trying to bribe them. I wasn’t trying to buy them with boiled bread or schmear their character with cream cheese. I just wanted to give them a bagel to eat so they wouldn’t starve to death during a two-hour morning meeting in our conference room.

I blame it on my mother. Other than door-to-door salesmen, the Fuller Brush man and the Avon lady, anyone who came to our house was offered something to eat. I think it had something to do with the fact that she grew up during the Great Depression when many people really were hungry, so if you had food you offered some to your guests — just in case.

I didn’t think any of my guests were on the verge of starvation or anything, but something in my DNA said, “Give these folks something to eat.”

Whether or not they actually need it.

Unfortunately, these folks are employed by our state. And the state's code of ethics says they are not allowed to accept anything of value from me — not even a bagel.

“Tell them they can pay for their bagel,” one of my colleagues suggested.

“That just feels weird to me,” I told him. “I can’t say, ‘Welcome to my office. Here, have a bagel. That’ll be $1.50 — another quarter if you want cream cheese.’ What kind of hospitality is that? I’m pretty sure my mom would haunt me forever if I did that.”

So I reluctantly canceled the bagel order and groused and grumbled about it to anyone who would listen. Finally Brent, my boss, took me aside.

“I understand your concern,” he said. “It’s a little awkward to not be able to bring in bagels for everyone, or to provide lunch during a lunchtime meeting, or even to hand them a bottle of water, but they have a code of ethics. They’re trying to be honorable and principled, and to conduct their business with impeccable integrity.”

“I get that,” I said. “And I respect what they are doing. But I’m not trying to finagle anything here. It’s just that it’s going to be a long meeting, and I want everyone to be able to focus and not be distracted because they’re getting hungry. And this rule seems so … I don’t know … extreme. I mean, I can’t even give them a bottle of water? Seriously?”

Brent smiled the patient, indulgent smile of an engineer trying to explain quantum mechanics to someone who flunked Introduction to Algebra.

Twice.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said gently, and more than a little playfully. “I’m not sure there is an extreme when it comes to integrity. But even if there is, extreme integrity sounds like a good thing to me.”

Come to think of it, it sounds pretty good to me, too. Just the other day, I heard a sports radio host talk about an athlete who was caught using banned substances, and the host blew it off with a cavalier “Hey, if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.”

I’ve heard that same glib philosophy of relative integrity applied to business, politics, journalism and the law.

Inappropriately — at least as far as Albert Einstein, the ultimate authority on relativity, is concerned. “Relativity,” he said, “applies to physics, not ethics.”

Mahatma Gandhi, a universally esteemed authority on integrity, said, “The only tyrant I accept in this world is the ‘still, small voice’ within.” And in my experience, that “still, small voice” whispers constantly — you might even say “extremely” — in favor of integrity.

And not so much in favor of bagels.

To read more by Joseph B. Walker, visit josephbwalker.com.

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