Let me tell you a story, where you'll meet the characters who I'll call Bilal and Brenda.
I was working in a most remarkable part of the world. And one unremarkable morning, a colleague came to see me. She told me that Bilal, one of our senior executives, had been telling everyone I was being removed because I'd been messing with the wrong people. And now, I was going to face the consequences.
I wasn't alarmed, because I knew I had done what I'd been hired to do: my job, dealing with thorny issues head on and leaving no stone unturned. In fact, in the months prior to this, we'd overturned more than just a few stones. Those details are for another time.
I called my husband, James, to tell him about this bizarre conversation, and with what proved to be great foresight, he said, "Angélique, pack your things and call Brenda, in that order."
I called Brenda. I'd worked with her for a number of years, and I trusted her. She was the person who'd recommended me for that job. I cut to the chase, because my husband's reaction made me realize this was more than just the usual stuff I'd encountered before. And I say usual, but in that moment of clarity, it dawned on me what James had already recognized: none of this was usual.
These irregularities, part of a pattern I'd failed to notice, were what I now know as open secrets living beneath those proverbial stones I'd had the audacity to overturn.
To my shock, I learned that this was happening because I hadn't tried hard enough to operate in the "gray space." I didn't seem to know when to kick things into the long grass. And I didn't understand that this was how the system worked. The message, the implied threat, was clear.
Over the next few weeks, I was replaced by a convenient yes-man while I was still there. I suffered from terrible gastritis, and I pretended to our two young daughters that I still had that job. Leaving home every morning, dressed up as if for work, to drop them to school, for six months.
I did not submit, but I won't pretend that it was easy to speak up or beneficial in any way to me, to my family or to my career.
When we speak up in the workplace despite policies to the contrary, whilst we may not lose our jobs, we are likely to lose the camaraderie of our coworkers. Disbelieved, ostracized, faced with under-the-radar bullying. You know the kind when you walk into a room and everyone stops talking? We think: It's not my responsibility to say anything.
So why did I choose to act despite the risks to my family and to me? The sin of omission is a failure to do what you know is right.
When you stay quiet, even though you're not guilty of wrongdoing yourself, what will you have to live with if you don't take action?
So who are you in this lineup of actors? The bad actor, the wrongdoer? The bad stander who benefits directly or indirectly and acts as a puppet for the bad actor? The bystander, aware of the open secrets but not actually doing anything wrong or the upstander? This is the person we want to see when we look in the mirror.
I've learned three things: One, don't second guess yourself. When you see something amiss, ask questions, because it is okay to challenge those in authority. Two, don't be complicit. You always have the power to say no in the face of wrongdoing. And three, be an upstander. Speaking up is not about being brave. It's not about not feeling scared. But when you do what you know is right, you can be at peace with yourself.
Yes, it is hard to say what you feel in the moment. Do it anyway. Be fearless.
Martin Luther King said, "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." So when you look in the mirror, who will you see? A bystander, keeper of open secrets? Or will the person looking back at you be an upstander?
I know who I see. I know who my daughters see. The choice is yours.