Ethics: the problem with putting people on pedestals

by Nancy Gonzalez, CFLE
automotive distributer cap

There is a shortcoming I have that sometimes leads to extreme disappointment. It doesn't happen often anymore, but enough that it depresses me a lot when it does. It always makes me want to slap myself and say, "You never learn, do you?"  I have this tendency to create heroes for myself and, occasionally, I end up with regret. A few of my people have fallen off their pedestals.  As I've aged, I've gotten better at choosing my heroes.  In fact, it hasn't happened in many years. Earlier in my career, I had one such experience that left me crestfallen and bewildered.  I'd like to tell the story about this story.  All identifying information has been changed.

In another job, years ago, in a different place, I had a colleague I thought was not only wise but terribly witty and a joy to be around. I worked with a group of people, and I believe we all admired him. One of the traits I ascribed to him, which turned out to be a complete mistake, was sterling ethics. I still can't believe what he did.

At lunch one day, this colleague was with a group of us.  It was as if he was holding court. We were sitting at a large table, and he was regaling us with stories.  He was hilarious... until he started to tell the story that knocked him off my pedestal forever.

He had just sold his car. He put an ad in the paper, and a prospective buyer responded.  It was an older car that, as I remember, he listed for about $1,000.  The thing is, the car had a blown head gasket.  The repairs would cost as much as the car was worth, which is why he wanted to get rid of it.  Blown head gaskets make a car inoperable after just a few minutes after ignition.  Then it overheats. And you're stuck.

My admired colleague wanted to unload his lemon. He knew that the car would run about 10 minutes before it quit. The engine had to be stone cold for best results. He parked the car the night before in the site where he agreed to meet the buyer to make sure it would be a cold start.  The buyer started the car.  In a Minnesota winter, it took a while to warm up and begin overheating, but it was just long enough for an uneventful test drive. The buyer took it for a spin around the block, gave my friend a stack of Benjamins, and they transferred the title on the spot.

This story at lunch started off well. There are lots of funny things that can happen with cars. But as the punch line came, and I had found out he had deliberately defrauded an innocent person...  I could feel the blood drain from my face.  Most of the people around me laughed-but I was just sickened. My pasted-on smile faded painfully.  I quickly excused myself: time to go bang myself on the head again mentally and self-talk my recriminations, "You never learn!"

What's the moral of the story?  Did my colleague get nailed by karma or "what goes around comes around" justice?  I don't think so. I've kept tabs via grapevines, and this guy is now in a leadership position in a major organization, doing just fine, with no known problems with insomnia.

Related: ethics

Share your thoughts

Your former friend acted really badly for sure. Maybe this was enough of a transgression to end the friendship, but I wonder if he shouldn't have gotton the opp to explain himself. "Why did you do that?? Not nice!!!" Maybe that's the problem with pedestals, way too narrow and it doesn't take much to fall off. --Bob M.