Janice Carlson had always seen herself as an ethical person. She took pride in always telling the truth, even when doing so was uncomfortable. She also insisted that those she supervised at Comstock Engineering Company (CEC) do the same. Carlson frequently admonished her employees to be “straight” with her. She was fond of saying, “I can accept mistakes. They happen. I can even overlook an occasional bad day. But I will not put up with lying.” Close friends knew that Carlson’s distaste for lying grew out of an unhappy marriage she had endured for years with a husband who lied to her as a matter of course. When she could take her husband’s dishonesty no more, Carlson had filed for divorce.
Her commitment to honesty is why Carlson now feels, as she quietly admits to herself, “lower than a snake in the grass.” What makes things even worse is that this is a day on which Carlson should be overjoyed. After 15 years of loyal and effective service to CEC, several of which were spent as the only female engineer in the company, Carlson has just been promoted to director of the civil engineering department. Her promotion means a substantial salary increase, and Carlson needs it. Her daughter has just started college at a private institution. It is an excellent school, but the tuition rate is sky high, and her ex-husband, true to form, has refused to help. Why, then, on this day of all days does Carlson feel so bad? The answer is simple: She got the promotion because she lied.
The process for selecting CEC’s new director of civil engineering had been difficult. The competition had been especially tough. One of Carlson’s long time colleagues and friends had also been a leading candidate. Since Carlson and her friend were equally qualified and equally experienced, the ultimate selection had come down to solving a complex engineering problem developed by the outgoing director, who was retiring.
A couple of days before the candidates were scheduled to take the promotion test, Carlson had gone to the director’s office to return a file she had borrowed. The problem she would have to solve on the promotion test was on the director’s desk. The director was out of the office for the day. Carlson saw the problem and knew immediately what it was. She started to turn away but felt herself drawn to it. Almost without realizing what she was doing, Carlson leaned over the director’s desk and looked at the solution. It was a really tough problem.
When the two candidates had completed the test, Carlson’s friend and colleague asked how she had done. “I think I solved it” was her response. “Not me,” said her friend. “That was the trickiest engineering problem I’ve ever seen. I’ve heard that the director had this really complicated problem that no one has ever been able to solve, except him, of course. I don’t suppose you had ever seen this problem before, had you?” Janice Carlson could not look her friend in the eye when she said, “No. I’ve heard about it, too. But that was the first time I had ever seen it. I guess I just got lucky.” Her friend had smiled and held out his hand, saying, “Anyway, congratulations. It looks like you get the promotion.”
Carlson is a person who prides herself on honesty, but in this case, her personal interest overcame her commitment to the truth. On the one hand, she needs the promotion in order to help pay her daughter’s college costs. On the other hand, the way she received it was dishonest. Put yourself in Carlson’s shoes. What would you have done?