I once quit a job over ethics. The company I worked for told me to inflate numbers and mislead customers and outright lie about the work we’d done. I confronted my boss who told me that I was mistaken, that’s not what was going on. When I later persisted, she told me that if I wanted to have a good job, this is the kind of practice I’d have to get used to. I was gone within six months. And she was wrong.
I understand that not everyone can take the risk to stand up for their ethics in the workplace or quit a job because of them. You risk money, slander, retaliation, and demotion. You risk not being able to provide for your family, and you risk being blacklisted in your field and a whole other host of repercussions for doing the right thing. It happens all the time. Workplace retaliation is the most frequently filed charge with the EEOC and has been for the past 10 years. In the 2019 fiscal year, a record 58.3% of all claims included a complaint of retaliation.
It wasn’t easy for me to do what I did. My decision came after months of stomach-twisting stress over the possibility of losing my job (and therefore my paycheck) and how it might threaten my reputation or future job prospects. It came after becoming physically sick from the anxiety and after developing a new ritual of crying on my commute home.
But it wasn’t just being fired that I was afraid of. I feared more what would happen if I spoke up and then stayed in that job, and many of those fears materialized over the following months. I was stripped of most of my responsibilities without explanation, I was excluded from important meetings I had once been a key member of; I was given nearly impossible yet arbitrary goals to reach—goals that had nothing to do with my professional experience or goals, I was told that my performance was sub-par despite the fact that I proposed new projects while meeting or even exceeding my new numbers, I was gaslighted repeatedly.
I was more miserable than I had been before I spoke up. I wondered if the risk I had taken would change anything at the company at all when it looked like all it did was drive nefarious practices into even darker corners. I wondered how long it would take me to find a new job. I wondered if I had overreacted—maybe this is just a part of the business, and I’m a square. I questioned daily whether it had been worth it.
I tell this story not to convince you that if you stand up for your ethics, everything will be okay. There’s a chance it won’t. I tell this story because standing up for your ethics is worth it. It was for me.
It showed me I was at the wrong company. It galvanized my resolve to practice integrity in my work and in my daily life. It gave me a new clarity on what I wanted in a job and what I didn’t want. It made me a better interviewer. I was earnest and adamant in my search for a company that shared my values. It made me sit down and ask myself: How am I going to use this to make myself proud a year from now? Five years? Ten?
Years on the other side, I can tell you that I am proud of myself. And that made it worth it.
Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is on staff at InHerSight where she writes about data and women’s rights.