Career coach: Don't compromise your integrity

You gain nothing from working for organisations that undermine your principles.

Too unwell to leave her bed because of a painful attack of shingles, Sue has been talking to me over the phone. She told me about her struggle at work, where her personal integrity was at odds with that of her employer.

Sue was delighted when she was offered her first position as a chief executive at the end of last year. She headed a regional office of a national organisation that supports people.

It was only when Sue became entrenched in the day-to-day running of the organisation that she realised that the support offered to both service users and staff was flawed. Some of the organisation's policies were proving entirely unworkable. Clients who were anxious, confused and depressed, sometimes to the point of being suicidal, were allowed a maximum of 15 minutes with a support worker. This was inadequate to the point of being derisory.

Support workers had ridiculously large caseloads and were offered insufficient back-up. Right through the organisation, staff were stressed, exhausted and disaffected. Sickness rates were high. Even the building seemed to be suffering and had sewage bubbling up into the basement from badly fitted pipes. Unsurprisingly, Sue had become sick with a stress-related illness.

Having carried out assessments with staff and clients, evaluated the service from a financial and organisational viewpoint, Sue took her findings and a strong case for change to the trustees. Disappointingly, they would not be moved. They said that policies were in place for a reason and that if staff weren't coping it was probably because they were not up to scratch.

Moreover, the trustees were not prepared to risk conflict with the national organisation by suggesting change at a regional level. They implied that Sue was making a fuss about nothing. She left the meeting feeling unheard, defeated and patronised.

Having made a valiant attempt to alter a system that is at odds with her own integrity and failed, Sue was left questioning herself about whether she could continue trying to support that system. In coaching her, I asked her to focus on herself rather than the organisation. Could she continue to make herself fit into a rigid structure that didn't work for her and didn't support her integrity? This proved to be a very easy answer for Sue, who handed in her notice on the same day.

- Amanda Falkson is a psychotherapist who runs monthly Tough at the Top groups for voluntary sector chief executives -

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