Graduates and their families visiting North Carolina this weekend are rightfully focusing on the achievements of their loved ones rather than the exceptionally tawdry trial of John Edwards taking place down the road in Greensboro. The immoral conduct being recounted is on too grand of a scale to provide many lessons for our well grounded graduates being honored this weekend. However, there is an important aspect to this sorry tale that has been overshadowed by the sex, money, and betrayal -- and that is the abusive way that Senator Edwards treated those who worked for him and the damage that he inflicted on them personally and professionally. The lesson for the graduates – choose your bosses well.
In these difficult economic times, many young people are worried about just getting a job, let alone having the luxury to “choose” their boss. While this may seem to be true at the moment, graduates of prestigious universities still have choices today and will certainly have them over the course of their careers. When making these choices, the tendency is to focus on the substantive content of the job, prestige, salary, and location. I suggest, however, that graduates ought to consider another factor: the character of their future employer.
What makes me exceptionally sad about the Edwards trial is how he treated those who worked for him as no more than a used Kleenex. Young people who work for a politician are usually public spirited, committed individuals. Staff are certainly not in it for the money. Some, to be sure, are attracted by the glamour and the power. But in my experience, most of them are idealistic. They want to make a difference. And they are deeply committed to the public causes that their boss advocates.
Politicians demand total loyalty from their staff and they have every right to do so. But in turn, the staff have every right to be treated as professionals and never to be asked to do things – in the name of loyalty – that are unethical, immoral, or wrong.
The Edwards saga is so staggeringly sad not only because the Senator was willing to inflict pain on his wife and children, but because he so wantonly betrayed those who committed themselves to him and the causes he advanced.
A parade of staff members has come before the jury. They were asked to lie. To hide the Senator’s wrongdoing. To move money surreptitiously. To knowingly issue false statements to the public. Perhaps there were staff who said “no” and quit. But those who stayed and did the Senator’s bidding – due to deception, loyalty, or their own clouded ethics – have damaged their careers.
So the lesson to the graduates today is that before deciding on who you work for – whether it be an individual or a company – consider your future employer’s reputation not only for prestige and profitability, but also for its ethics and how employees are treated. Sometimes this will mean walking away from a good job. But in the end, it will be worth it.