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AMY LINDGREN: Losing A Career for Wrongdoing

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We can be very punitive as a society. On the one hand, it can take decades to decide that certain behaviors are wrong. But once we’ve made up our collective minds, woe to the person who crosses the line we’ve drawn in the sand.

Drug laws provide a handy reference for this phenomenon. It wasn’t that long ago that marijuana, cocaine and even heroin were unregulated or even lauded. Now our prisons are crammed with users and sellers of these drugs. When offenders are released, they soon find their career options are severely limited – often for the rest of their lives.

What about the person who makes a mistake at work that costs someone else their life? At first blush that would seem obvious: Of course that’s not forgivable. Right? But what if that person is an EMT, nurse, or physician who made the best decision they could but still chose the wrong option in delivering care? What if the mistake was the result of extreme fatigue, brought on by working at a short-staffed facility? Should these individuals be stripped of their licenses and denied the opportunity to utilize the decade or more of training that has been invested in them? Is that what’s fundamentally best for society?

These are not small issues to me. I can recall a long list of job seekers whose careers were halted for actions, both criminal and non-criminal, which the working world deemed to be unforgivable. The list includes people whose negligence caused a death, those whose drug use resulted in a felony, sex addicts whose use of pornography prompted dismissal, advisors whose clients brought very public lawsuits for charges that were eventually dismissed…I even knew a new graduate whose job offer in the marketing department of an airline was rescinded when the background check revealed a misdemeanor on his record. The crime? Carrying a cup of beer in the street between two fraternities during college.

That cup of beer stuck with me both for the anguish it caused the young man and for the juxtaposition it posed with an old-school printing company I was conducting layoff services for in the same period of time. There I was told ribald stories of the workers being served beer on the line as a morale booster. How can the same activity be celebrated in one workplace and condemned in another?

I know the answer is context, at least in part. What’s allowable in one setting is completely wrong elsewhere. But I’m still stuck on a fundamental question: Are we too quick as a society to demand someone’s career as payment for their wrongdoing? Or, in the case of those who are wrongly-accused, for the perception of wrongdoing that persists even beyond evidence to the contrary?

Thanks to the half-life of the internet, we’ve passed the point of no return when it comes to fresh starts for criminals and non-criminals alike. I used to laugh about the “big book in the sky” idea but I’m not laughing any more. What was once an idle parental threat about how our misdeeds would be known to everyone has become chillingly true. We can pay for our sins by losing our jobs or, in the case of felons, losing our freedoms, but the debt never seems to be paid in full. This apparently will go on until there are no workers left with spotless records, at which point one can hope we might call for a national re-set on this issue.

We’d better get to that re-set soon, given the current outcry over sexual harassment in the workplace. This is not an activity I take lightly, having experienced it so frequently myself. I know how it impacts the careers of those receiving unwanted attention. But I also know there’s a difference between the doofus down the hall with bad taste in jokes and the supervisor who uses his post for serial predation on young women. Again, the key is context. One of these individuals needs to be given the kind of reprimand that carries weight and the opportunity to correct his ways, while the other needs to be removed from situations where he can harm others – and may indeed deserve prosecution.

As tempting as it may be, one thing we can’t afford to do is toss all the harassers out on the sidewalk with a giant H stamped on their foreheads so they can never work again. We’ve waited decades for this issue to gain momentum; we can afford the time it takes to apply context in judging each situation. To do anything else is to give into a mob mentality and I don’t want to be part of that.

Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul. She can be reached at alindgren@prototypecareerservice.com or at 626 Armstrong Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55102.

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