Last week one of my friends asked me this question on Twitter: “Do white supremacists and KKK members, current or former, deserve to have jobs?” My response was “If the employers are ready to handle the potential fallout from those connections, no problem.”

Ethics
Dan Mason via Compfight

For me, that was a pretty easy question to answer because he didn’t ask me if I’d hire those people. Then again, he probably knew better; race is my hot button topic. Anything racial, sexual, or any other kind of “ism” is something that’s hard for me to forgive.

Yet, there was George Wallace, the 4-time elected governor of Alabama. The first iteration of the governor was as a staunch segregationist who actually tried to block black children from going to school, luckily being overruled by the federal justice system and having it be enforced by the National Guard. The last time he was governor of the state he’d renounced his past, said he’d become a born again Christian, apologized for his previous stance by visiting civil rights leaders and, once elected, appointed a record number of blacks to state positions and added two black people to his cabin.

In other words, he atoned, apologized, reached out to those he’d oppressed previously, and then walked the talk. Intriguing isn’t it? It’s hard to maintain anger at such a legitimate turnaround; he gets a break.

Suffice it to say, the last week in both politics and entertainment has taken a very interesting twist. Out comes a recording of a particular presidential candidate saying some pretty vile things about women and the things he can get away with because he’s a star, with the other participant of the video being someone who laughed and agreed with this same candidate, was a much younger man at the time, and just recently signed a large contract with a major network to host a show mainly geared towards women and run by women… wow…

The presidential candidate apologized for his words and then decided to go on a rant against the other presidential candidates spouse by saying he was much worse, and pulling a number of women from the former presidents past as examples of it. On its own that’s pretty stupid, considering that the current presidential candidate is facing charges of raping a 13 year old girl; glass houses are abundant this year in politics.

On the other hand, we have this TV personality who’s now on suspension, and it’s possible that it might be permanent. He apologized and pretty much disappeared, probably because the powers that be who hired him asked him to step away, then decided to increase the pressure based on the response from women who voiced their opinions from all over the country (more than a million responses against from what I read). All that from a conversation 11 years ago.

The question that some people are asking is whether things that have happened in the past should be reasons to hold things against them, or anyone else who might end up in the same type of situation. Are people supposed to be subject to the sins of their past for the rest of their life?

I have my own views on this question, which I’ll come back to, but let’s look at some recent examples.

We have to start with Bill Cosby who, even though he’s in his eighties, is now under charges and serious consideration for going to jail for accusations of sexual assault that he “allegedly” has perpetrated on women for over 30 years. The statute of limitations is up on all of them, yet he’s still going to trial for it in the state of Pennsylvania. Here’s a man who’s public acts merited lots of kudos, awards, and financial success, but a past that’s become too much to overcome will tarnish the legacy of anything good he previously did.

We can mention the many religious leaders in the Catholic church and, of course, other churches (let’s throw in televangelists) who acted one way for years in the public eye, only to have the stain of sexual scandal come back to slam them and, pretty much, shut their careers down and, in some cases, send them to jail. Even if some of the acts these people did were considered as good accomplishments, they don’t get to escape their previous bad behavior.

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I once hired someone who’s spent time in prison for embezzling funds. She did it because her child was sick and had some high medical bills she was having trouble paying; yes, it’s still criminal, but she wasn’t trying to use the money for her own benefit. She was contrite, owned up to it in the interview, and had a lot of skills I knew we could use.

I knew I couldn’t put her in a position where she’d have access to any money because that would have caused a firestorm, but I liked how she was honest and upfront about what she did and why; thus, I forgave her and hired her, even if upper management didn’t like it (since they pre-screened people, they could have stopped me from even knowing about her before I interviewed her, so…).

I also once met a guy at a hospital I was consulting at who always wore long sleeves and buttoned his collars at the neck. One day when it was just us two, he mentioned that he’d been a former white supremacist as a teen who belonged to a gang for about two years.

He realized he was wrong and changed his outlook and how he treated people, but during the time he’d been in the group he’d gotten so many tattoos on his arms and on his neck. He knew he had to cover them up to get a good job, and hoped that one day he’d make enough money to get them removed. He was nice and smart, and none of his co-workers knew his past, and I certainly wasn’t going to tell anyone because it wasn’t my right to tell.

Let’s come back to the original question; do people deserve to be condemned by their past?

My response is yes… with qualifications.

I believe that people can change from bad habits to good; if I didn’t, I wouldn’t ever talk about leadership training. I also believe that people only change when they want to.

If a person really wants to change and be seen as something other than what their past showed, it takes a couple of action steps.

The first is owning up to what they did that was wrong and, if it needs to be stated in the open then they need to do it.

The second is to change one’s actions, and then build up a resume of better behavior to prove that there’s been actual change of mindset and deportment.

Of course, if one’s ethics are in the right place, then these types of things wouldn’t happen to begin with. However, since we all come from different backgrounds with different experiences, it might take some people longer to figure that out.

Try not never let someone else control your future; you might not like the outcome.
 

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