It is one of those days—weeks, really—where I am feeling sick and tired of the happenings in the world, and particularly, the happenings in the United States. Violence against Asian-Americans, voter suppression, the trial for the murder of George Floyd: all of these things are collectively weighing on my spirit and I have to do some brutally efficient compartmentalization before I can get on with the boatload of tasks and assignments that are demanding my time and attention.
Out of my peripheral vision, I’ve been somewhat fascinated by the recent spike of news around Deborah Birx, who served as the White House coordinator for the pandemic response (or lack thereof). In a recent interview with CNN, Birx admitted that she knew the White House’s pandemic response (or lack thereof) was, er, wanting, and that hundreds of lives could have potentially been saved. An opinion piece from the Washington Post argued that her situation ought to be taught as the “Birx Dilemma” in public policy schools, as an example of someone who was clearly qualified to do her job, but who was forced to try and do her job while reporting to someone who was not only incompetent, but quite possibly mentally unfit (and malevolent and narcissistic and petty, to boot).
I don’t think the Birx Dilemma (catchy phrase) ought to be taught just in public policy schools. I think that it ought to be taught, and people ought to learn about it, in education and employment situations throughout one’s life. Because the Birx Dilemma illustrates a fundamental problem that comes up again and again in employment situations: how to develop, and exercise, your integrity muscle.
Your inner sense of integrity—your moral compass, if you wish for another way to think about it—is your sense of right and wrong that gets you through every possible aspect of life, including and especially, work situations. And you may think you have moral clarity about how you would act in different situations—for example, I am quite certain that nothing could have persuaded me to work in the Trump Administration—but I am also aware that I can’t possibly be aware of all of the factors that went into Dr. Birx’s thinking during that period—whether she thought she could do more good by staying in that job, so she could help to mitigate the incompetence and ignorance around her, for example.
What I am trying to say is that for people at any stage of their career, at some point, and probably at many points, you will find yourself in the middle of a very messy situation. The right and the wrong of what to do will not be super-clear to you. Everything will feel gray, and fuzzy, and worse yet, it will feel extraordinarily painful, and stressful, and may even make your hair fall out. In clumps. And when you find yourself in those situations, you will have to weigh many things simultaneously before making a decision on how to either mitigate, adapt to, or exit the situation.
Your integrity is one of the many things that should help guide you towards your ultimate decision. So you should get well-acquainted with your sense of integrity from a very early age onwards! You should be somewhat aware of all of the many influences that helped shape your moral compass (no one springs from the womb with a developed sense of integrity). For some people, it’s religious faith. For others, it’s their parents—for better or for worse. For some people, it’s Star Trek! (I’m not kidding about that, there are people who truly believe that Starfleet’s values are the ones they want to live by, never mind that it’s fictional and set in the future.)
Your moral compass will likely shift and change as you get older and gain more work experience. For example, there were things that used to shock the hell out of me in my early years of working. I was shocked when people just outright didn’t do the work. I was shocked when I heard that a colleague threw a temper tantrum in the middle of a meeting and left, slamming the door shut after her. And while I still think those behaviors are, uh, not good in a workplace setting, I now have a more compassionate and wider lens through which to view those behaviors. Maybe those people were just going through something terrible in their personal lives. Maybe they were struggling in their jobs, and no one was helping them. My integrity would still tell me, nowadays, that those behaviors need to be addressed—in part because they have a negative and outsized impact on other people’s ability to work—but they need to be addressed with compassion.
In one very ill-fated job, I was told by a very senior person to do something that was completely against the rules. I knew that what he was doing was wrong, and I did exactly what I was counseled to do—I shared details with my supervisor, who then ran details up the flagpole, so to speak. What happened next, in retrospect, was unsurprising: certain friends and colleagues of the very senior person began making noises about disciplining me for a plethora of very vague, and in some cases, completely untruthful reasons. It was a textbook case of retaliation. (I did, after all, train to be a lawyer.)
My sense of right and wrong absolutely told me that what was happening to me was wrong. I could’ve fought back. I could have threatened legal action based on any number of things, not the least of which had to do with the hostile, discriminatory things he said to me while asking me to break the rules. In those situations, you know, the employer usually wants to avoid litigation, so the minute you start speaking up, they usually try to get you to hush up with a settlement. And by getting you to sign an agreement that you’ll never, ever talk shit about them, ever. (I did not sign such an agreement, which is why I feel relatively okay writing about it here, although I’m still keeping details anonymous.)
But I didn’t fight back. What satisfaction would a settlement bring? I didn’t want to go through the process of hiring an employment lawyer, gathering all of the documentation (I had a lot of it), and bringing a cause of action against a very ginormous organization. Most of all, I just didn’t want to re-live the sorry set of circumstances over and over again through litigation. When you bring an action forward, you have to set down every fact, in painstaking detail, with the correct chronology. Which essentially forces you to re-live the situation, often repeatedly. I was feeling relatively mentally healthy about the whole situation, TBH: while unpleasant to experience, I was kind of matter-of-fact about it: I encountered a huge asshole, backed by a huge armada of assholes who ushered him to his seat of power, and rather than try to engage for the sake of justice and fairness, I….just resigned.
The lesson for me was and still is: in general, one’s integrity is a good guide, but not always a good master. Like, if you’re going to die on a hill for a cause, I think it had better be the right cause, you know what I mean? And it was also a reminder that sometimes, at work, you’re going to find yourself in situations where you don’t know the right thing to do. You will be picking the lesser of two evils, in some cases. And it doesn’t mean that your integrity is shot to shit: it just means that you deployed your sense of right and wrong, and made a difficult decision based on that and a whole host of other reasons.
I hope that more people develop a sense of integrity that tells them to intervene, say something, do something when someone tries to harass a Black person, an Asian person, a trans person, a gay person: anyone, really, who is being oppressed systematically and brutally in America.
I’m not sure that Dr. Birx deserves a great deal of compassion or forgiveness from any of us—particularly the people who lost loved ones, unnecessarily, during the pandemic. But I AM sure she had integrity, and that she was in a helluva difficult situation, working for people who possessed absolutely none.