As I am Italian, let me invite you to an Opera: Il Barbiere di Siviglia, which was performed for the first time exactly 200 years ago in 1816, by Gioacchino Rossini. Halfway thought the opera you will hear Don Basilio singing the famous “La calunnia e’ un venticello,” or “Calumny is a little breeze”.
Calumny is a little breeze,
A gentle zephyr,
which insensibly, subtly,
lightly and sweetly,
commences to whisper.
Softly softly, here and there,
it goes gliding, it goes rambling.
Into the ears of the people,
it penetrates slyly
and the head and the brains
it stuns and it swells.
From the mouth re-emerging
the noise grows crescendo,
gathers force little by little,
runs its course from place to place,
seems the thunder of the tempest
which from the depths of the forest
comes whistling, muttering,
freezing everyone in horror.
Finally with crack and crash,
it spreads afield, its force redoubled,
and produces an explosion
like the outburst of a cannon,
an earthquake, a whirlwind,
a general uproar,
which makes the air resound.
And the poor slandered wretch,
vilified, trampled down,
sunk beneath the public lash,
by good fortune, falls to death.
Even without the melodrama of opera, the idea of losing our reputation is a terrifying prospect. So, how can we avoid calumny in our careers and protect the most precious asset we have? Let me share a few examples, so that you can consider what you would do if you found yourself in these situations.
• You are a senior accountant in a prestigious company and you are instructed to carry out a review for a pharmaceutical company, which is a very important customer. In the analysis, you find that your client company has accounted for more than 2 million euros on expired drugs and medicines; if you remove the value of the expired medicines it would mean that your client would suffer a financial loss. You share this information with your supervisor, who tells us to give up because “our company cannot afford to lose a client like them”. The same evening, the client invites you to dinner, they order food and expensive wines and give you an expensive golden pen, counting on your “discreet collaboration”.
• You work in the legal department, and you find that the procurement and contract for a very important assignment has been won by a company whose owner is a close relative of the President.
• You organize a training course in a foreign country, with about 120 participants coming from all over the world. The teaching material that you sent has been stopped at the border for no reason. They inform you that “difficult customs practices can only be resolved in if we make a cash payment today of $ 5,000,” otherwise you will be obliged to cancel the course.
• One of your colleagues has written a book and is ordering 300 copies at the company’s expense, to be distributed as teaching material in a course organized by him.
• You find that the IT system of your company has been encrypted. You inform your boss and he asks you not to tell anyone, adding that next week he will have to decide about your promotion.
• You are a doctor. A well-known pharmaceutical company invites you on a cruise to the Caribbean, as long as your prescriptions only recommend their products.
• You need to recruit several senior staff. A search firm contacts you offering an amount equal to six months of your salary if you assign the lucrative task to them.
• An employee sends a medical certificate for three months, from June to September. By total coincidence you meet him in late July in the tourist village where you realize that he’s working as swimming instructor. The employee, a close relative of the resort manager, offers you a free holiday, as long as you keep quiet about meeting him.
• You represent your company for a major contract. A person from the competitor company offers you a brand new car if you offer your products at a certain price, too high to win the contract.
• You learn that a very senior person in your organization is using people in his team for business not related to his position, while another one has recruited a close family member. Both people are very influential and could derail your career.
So, what would you do if you found yourself in similar situations?
The point is that you will face choices that will force you to choose between sticking to your ethical values or stipulating a pact with the devil; some obvious, other less so. But there is no half-way house here. In my 25-year career I have seen many decent people who have signed a Mephistolian pact. They may survive today, but in the long run they end up disappearing in the darkness Don Giovanni’s Mozart.
Aren’t we enjoying a long night at the Opera?
- Paolo Gallo
Over the last 30 years, Paolo Gallo has been Chief Human Resources Officer at the World Economic Forum in Geneva; Chief Learning Officer at The World Bank in Washington DC; and Director of Human Resources at the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development in London.