When I was a little girl, my father used to tell me heartfelt stories about his childhood in India and many tales about his family. Unfortunately, I never got the chance to meet my grandfather, as he passed away when my father was sixteen. Banarsi Das Saraf was a freedom fighter with Mahatma Gandhi during the Quit India Movement in India’s struggle for independence from the British. He went to prison with Gandhi and others for standing up for what they believed was right. It was there that he developed emphysema that, ultimately, led to his early departure from my family. Though I never met him, my life has been partly formed and I am always led by my grandfather’s legacy to never give up and always do the right thing, no matter what.
My early years up until my early professional days were guided by these principles and I sought to be the perfect girl in every way – being careful to follow the straight and narrow path. Like most first generation Americans, I was driven to obtain specific goals and achieve the cultural definition of success predominant in my Indian culture. But, as I began to lead my own law firm and work with various clients and corporations, the demand to meet particular needs by clients as well as the desire to have financial stability and keep up appearances led me off my path. Ultimately, I faced the adventure of a lifetime wherein I learned life-changing lessons and endured serious consequences for my prior actions as I was forced to spend 6 months away from my family and my life. (To learn more, see my bio here)
I have now been home for a little more than a year and I try each day to be vulnerable and draw strength from my experience and help others. It is the ongoing restitution for the profound remorse that I feel for what I allowed happen. I remember my grandfather’s legacy and ponder how I could have made such bad decisions. I have come to terms with and firmly believe that even good people can make bad decisions. I can learn from my experience and not let it define who I am. I believe the true test is how we come out of these moments to inspire others and then lead the way to create change. To that extent, I wake each day with a mission to share the need for ethical vigilance in everything we do. We are all surrounded by images and news stories daily reflecting a serious void as it relates to ethics and compliance.
Whether it is Wells Fargo, Volkswagen, United Airlines, a world leader, a sports icon gone astray, a musician, or a community leader, we are reminded that decisions are made, often without regard to ethics, leading to dire results and a host of problems. How can we instill the need for ethical vigilance in our next generation of leaders? How can we ensure that those after us can learn from our bad decisions so that the cycle does not repeat? We must share and discuss these issues openly and safely. We have all faced a scenario where we let a gray decision slide or we stood mute in the face of something ethically questionable. It is a split second decision that we can rationalize. But, before we know it, we are sliding down a slippery slope. We can anchor against that slippery slope.
We must create an environment where real people are talking about real scenarios and how those decisions can play out in the real world. We must talk to our children daily even in the smallest of examples at home. Our academic institutions can pave the way by offering courses, conversations, and lectures on the topic of ethics and the ramifications for failing to listen to your inner voice. Our legal and accounting advisors can consider not just the fiduciary duty imposed by the profession, but also the question of ethics and the need to go the extra mile to protect not only the client, but also society from decisions that are unethical. Lastly, our corporations can shift the paradigm in their organizational behavior model and create incentives for ethical and moral behavior with teamwork that will generously lead to financial profit, rather than simply focusing on the bottom line for rewarding employees. The need to avoid disruption in our corporate sector has never been more prevalent than in this era. I believe that we can significantly avoid corporate disruption by instilling ethical vigilance in corporate cultures.
Ethical vigilance is not just paying lip service to a requirement for a compliance education program. It is not checking the box in a large corporation’s laundry list of regulatory requirements simply to move on to the next big deal that will yield profit. It is not cutting corners or taking shortcuts. It is not making assumptions. It is about doing your due diligence. Doing an ethical reality check in each moment, for each action, for all aspects of our lives. It is about listening to our inner voice and not ignoring that stomach gurgling feeling when something does not feel right. Ethical vigilance is about creating a culture of conversation specifically as it relates to ethics in our corporations, academic institutions, families, and communities.
I strive each day to live in the image of my grandfather and share the need to do the right thing. As a consequence of my bumpy and windy path, I am more aware and have learned invaluable lessons. I know that it is my mission to spread the need for ethical vigilance. I hope to continue to make my grandfather proud by furthering his legacy. You can watch me tell my story below:
Rashmi Airan‘s mission is to share the need for ethical vigilance and to inspire you to make good ethical choices in all areas of your life. Rashmi is an ethics speaker and consultant fighting to create a culture of conversation and bring ethical issues in business to light, to promote integrity, to enhance commitment to fiduciary duty, to build ethical leadership, and to shift the paradigm of ethics standards through ethics training.
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