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The Company You Keep

The company you keep has taken on a second meaning in recent years. It's no longer just about your circle of friends and their effect on your personality. It's also the place you chose to work. What they stand for is also a representation of what you stand for. Their reputation is your reputation, and yes a handful of bad apples will very much ruin the bunch.

This article is not about the effects of Gen Z in the workplace, cancel culture and its negative effects on open dialogue, nor is it a plea to return to the "good old days". No. This article is targeted more at employees who feel their company does not line up one-for-one with their values, principles or vision for society. The employees who see the companies mission statement, pillars, or foundational principles mounted on the walls of their company as empty promises of a bygone era. The employees who see what the company could be at its best, but feel the journey is daunting. The employees who are concidering moving on. You, my friends, are the audience for this week's article.

Over the past year, I have seen more and more companies take up the torch of social responsibility. It seems as if more and more companies are starting to release statements when moral and ethical wrong doing is being committed, at least on a national stage. Prior to the murder of George Floyd last year, I don’t remember hearing about too many companies willing to take a public stance on a headline news event. Since then I feel (with no research numbers to back me up mind you) that it's starting to become common practice. I can attribute this (again with no research number to back me up in the least bit) to the employees of those companies holding their employers accountable for the actions. Employees are pushing a new level of social responsibility onto the companies they work for, and in some cases it's making a difference.

When you're an employee, especially a newer one, you tend to incorrectly think that your voice doesn't matter. That everyone else in the company has been good with what's going on to this point, and you don't want to make waves. I can understand that. It can feel like being at a concert. The person who sold you the tickets talked all about their top selling albums, the bands philanthropic efforts, and how they would take the audience suggestions for songs. Then you get there, the music sounds the same as every other band, you don't agree with their lyrics and the rest of the audience seem oblivious to the garbage their listening to. That doesn't stop the audience from singing along to all the lyrics as the top of their lungs. The music is deafening, and it makes it hard to think straight or attempt to even hum another tune. Even if you could get another tune out, you are one voice out of thousands. Who will, or who wants to hear you? This is why I can understand why people choose to get up and leave the concert.

When you're face to face with the realization that the company you're working for is not who you thought they were, it's defeating. It almost feels like being cheated on. You've bragged to your friends and family about this company, you wear their branded clothing and may have even convinced a couple people to work there. You feel used and betrayed, and it's much easier to get up and walk away. But companies, like relationships, are not static. Every company is dynamic and is at least a little different than the day they first opened their doors. Many people who have been at the company for years have difficulty seeing the company's blind spots. They're so used to the way it is or the way it's always been. This doesn't mean they're not open to new ideas, but they may not even know what new ideas look like. Change can only come from those that see where something has the potential to be. That is how all of this ties to leading your career. You my friends, can and should be change agents.

The company you keep is 100% a reflection of who you are. The company's action, inactions and ignorance are all a reflection of you. If you're fortunate enough to work at a company who values the diversity of their work force, values the lives of their employees outside of work hours, and who also gives back to their community at large, you are very lucky. For the rest of you, you have a couple options here.

  1. Roll up your sleeves. You may only be one voice speaking up in the crowd, but you're probably not the only voice there. When you feel your company is dropping the ball, and not living up to their self proclaimed principles you need to seek out like minded people. It will be difficult at first, uncomfortable even. Like the first person in a stadium trying to start the wave. They look more like they sat on their drink than someone trying to start a movement. But the movement comes. People see what you're doing. They align with you. People tap the people next to them and point, "look what they're doing". They smile because they see the change, they see the movement. At that point you're not just leading your career, you're leading everyone's.

  2. Walk away. At the end of the day it is not your direct responsibility to shift the current at your company. In a previous article "The Grass Isn't Always Greener" I talked about really assessing your situation before concidering walking away from your company. I didn't really hit on this element, but if you fundamentally do not align with your company and you rolled up your sleeves and fought the hard fight, and nothing seems to be changing, you need to walk away. Do not fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy. It doesn't matter how long you've worked there. If you do not fundamentally align with your company, if you feel embarrassed when people ask where you work, if you see people at your company being devalued, and you feel progress is hopeless, you need to walk away from that company. That is an abusive relationship.

Only you can really assess where you are in terms of alignment with your company, or your level of preparedness to roll up your sleeves versus walking away. I can assure you that neither of those are easy paths, but neither is playing blind to the company you keep. With that,

I ask two things from you this week:

  1. If you read this article and thought "I've never really thought of work that way", please lift your head up from your day to day grind. You may inadvertently be part of the problem, and could just as easily be part of the solution. Take a look around to those you work with. Listen to their thoughts, and try to see the company you work for through their eyes. Could it be better? Are their social norms in your company that lend themselves to sexist behaviors? Are their people in your meeting that don't look like you and don't get offered the same amount of speaking time? "I'm just here doing my 9-5" doesn't cut it. You cannot lead your career with your head up high in the shadows of lies.

  2. If you're strongly considering walking away right now, give it one more shot. Roll your sleeves all the way up. Is it your responsibility to alter the state of your company? No. But do you know how empowering that could be? The person you could become on the other end of that push, whether you're successful or not? The careers of other people that you could effect if you succeed? The pride you would end up having with the company you keep, knowing they're in a better pace because of you? Besides, what's the worst thing that's going to happen? You get fired. I feel like you're still winning in that scenario.

You should take all of this very personally. Though the career you're leading is not bound by the walls of your employer, we should all aspire to work for employers we can wear like a badge of honor. This means knowing that the company stands by their principles, and that they treat their employees with respect, and that those same employees feel valued and heard. We live and work in different times. The lines are blurred between work and home, time on and time off, and where a company's social responsibility starts and ends. Lucky for them though, your company has you to remind them.

Note: All of the opinions expressed in this article are my own, and are not a reflection of the viewpoint of my employer.

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