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What Ever Happened to Basic Human Decency?

Society is deciding that integrity is a losing proposition.

When I was a child growing up in suburban New Jersey in the 1970s, I was taught by my father to treat others with respect and consideration. I didn't always do a great job, but the lessons he taught me about being a decent human being have stayed with me. The wisdom of his advice becomes clearer and clearer to me the older I get, and the meaning and importance of treating others with dignity are highlighted in my own efforts to raise my children to be good people, in my personal relationships, and in my professional life. It's about mutual respect, it often involves making hard choices, and it isn't always successful.

My father, who passed away a few years ago, was a child of the Great Depression. He always emphasized his good fortune, yet he endured many, many terrible hardships and tragedies in his life. He showed exceptional diligence and caring at every step.

He was hard-working and made a good living through persistence and self-sacrifice. He graduated from Cornell at a young age with a degree in electrical engineering but went into my grandfather's business to help out when two key salesmen left and opened up shop down the block. He stayed with the family business for 46 years, working six days a week for most of those years.

He made it clear that he didn't particularly like the work he did, but it was more important for him to offer security to his family and be able to offer help and support. When he retired, he continued his habit of diligence and self-application—by playing bridge, a favorite college pursuit, every single day with almost no exceptions. He was very good at bridge, and while he wasn't always "nice" and expected people to be able to hear difficult feedback, he was loving and loyal, tough but fair.

I learned after he died that he had helped out many, many friends and family members often with generous financial gifts for which he neither asked nor expected repayment. Many people turned to him for his excellent counsel and sage advice, and he was always discreet and understated, not seeking praise or recognition. However, he had his limits, and if he thought someone was taking advantage, he was nobody's fool and would politely but frankly speak his mind.

As I am, among other things, now a business owner, the lessons he taught me about how to treat employees resonate, especially in today's cold and harsh professional world, where it seems like the norm is to maximize short-term profit and turn over employees quickly. Our family business hired a lot of people from the inner city, many from rough backgrounds with little education. My father always made it clear that regardless of where you were from, all people were fundamentally equal and worthy of respect.

If you were lucky to have been born into privilege or wealth, that didn't mean you were intrinsically better. Quite the contrary, we learned it was important to keep a healthy perspective on how arbitrary life can be and to be open and reserve judgment. He was quick to point out that competitors aren't there to do you any favors, and while it's always smart to be diplomatic and cordial, it isn't a good idea to be naive or overly trusting.

Rather than take advantage of employees by paying them less, working them harder, providing lesser benefits, and then hiring new people, my father made it a priority to treat employees and their families well if they held up their end of the bargain and showed integrity and a good work ethic. He didn't do this because it would be better for business in the long run, though it was, but because that is how people are supposed to treat one another, and to do otherwise would be against one's conscience. In the 1967 Race Riots, the family business was left untouched, while the other businesses on the same block had been vandalized and destroyed.

The prevailing ethos nowadays, in spite of various leadership gurus and HR initiatives, is to get away with as much as possible in terms of cost-cutting, taking advantage of a competitive environment that encourages companies to invest minimally in employees while paying lip-service to teamwork . On the surface, it's smart to be a team player, but underneath the expectation so often is that competitors won't hesitate to play dirty. Like the classic prisoner's dilemma, this creates an atmosphere in which throwing the other person under the bus seems like the smart move, even though the best strategy is to keep the faith.

As far as I can tell, based on my experience listening to patients, growing a business, reading the news, and talking with friends, family, and colleagues, the kind of moral fiber and stalwart attitude my father embodied and championed is now in short supply. It's not necessarily even seen as a good thing anymore. We see the devaluating of integrity and the valorization of underhandedness everywhere—in the workplace, in politics, in friendships, in romantic relationships.

People have greater and greater difficulty being honest, and instead find it easier to say what the other person wants to hear face-to-face, and then reveal their real intentions and feelings via their actions—failing to deliver—or by reversing themselves later on over email. If unchecked, this dangerous and disturbing trend will do greater and greater collective harm by eroding trust and undermining open dialogue.