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Going Against the Grain
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Recent headlines dovetail with a national holiday to remind us that there are times when we simply must do what is right, no matter the pressure to conform and maintain the status quo. There are times when it is the imperative to go against the grain of conventionality.

Add another name to the list of unconventionals who have had the audacity to not go along with the order of the day and follow their conscience. Sherron Watkins, a vice president of Arthur Andersen, is now a name in history. She not only felt the practices of her employer and supervisor were improper she said so, and not just in spoken words. She memorialized her concerns, projections and objections in a memo to her superior. She went against the grain of remaining silent and accepting whatever happened and hoping for the best or else that she would not get caught in the aftermath.

Other names of people who went against the grain are still close to us.

Anita Hill, after many years of accepting supervisory abuse, finally spoke to the Judiciary Committee and expressed her concern that Clarence Thomas would not be a suitable candidate for the highest seat in the judiciary because of his past history of lack of good judgment. What she thought was a private message to the Committee became an internationally televised testimony. She faced retribution and scathing comments from those who felt she fabricated her charges. But she put a new term in the human resources and workforce vocabulary that causes heads to now snap to attention.

No longer do workers endure harassment in order to say they are team players. No longer does management or human resources look away and hope the problem goes away. People are more than aware, in all of their relationships, that respect and civility are the essential elements of a safe and thriving workplace and community.

Shannon Faulkner left The Citadel after being enrolled as the first woman cadet in the history of the academy. She expressed dismay and regretted her leaving, saying she felt she had failed. Little did she realize she had done something far superior to failure and had actually succeeded in a very significant way. Shannon Faulkner went against the grain by following through with her conviction to be a woman cadet in a traditionally all-male school. By living through the ordeals of hazing, harassment, haranguing and abuse day in and day out, she showed that women do have a place in the academy. She opened the door for other women to be admitted.

The following year, Virginia Military Institute admitted its first class of women cadets. The going for them was not easy. However, the second thrust was made possible by the tenacity and conviction of Ms. Faulkner. The second front came in as a group rather than a solitary figure facing the rages of the entire school. The second wave learned from her experiences and VMI established male mentors for the female cadets and required that they be included in clusters rather than face the entire set of first semester rigors alone.

There are other names in history that blazed a trail for standing up for the nobler way, in spite of the opposition. Without their leadership, agricultural workers would still be slaving in California fields for pitiful wages. Caesar Chavez's willingness to lead a movement to better working conditions changed the spector for that class of workers.

Gloria Steinheim dared to push the women's movement further so that women were allowed to compete toe-to-toe with their male counterparts for the same job opportunities and rights in the workplace.

Finally, Martin Luther King, Jr. dared to say equality for all in order to pry open the heavy door of opportunity based on ability and not on sex, age, handicap or race.

The days for these warriors were not easy. No doubt there were many times they pondered the path they found themselves blazing. But no doubt none of them regret or regretted having done so.

And so it is that we should follow their examples. But it should be done with discretion and not with unthinking youthful passion, without regard for the consequences. That is the challenge for not only women but all who strive in our society and move through the various parts of the workforce. As Julie Bradshaw, former Managing Director/President of Suite101, said of standing firm in the face of adversity was that many times women will face resistance to what they are doing and strong objections. They will become discouraged. It's important that they be confident about what they're doing and follow through on what they know is the right decision under the circumstances. To quote her exactly, "... be true to yourself and your ideas -- trust yourself and your gut."

Go against the grain confidently, without loud noises or flailing about, when you know it's right thing to do.

Originally published on "The Desk" at Executive Recruiting Entrances, January 21, 2002