“To do or not to do” is a question that millions other than Shakespeare have been confronted with at some point in life. While we all have our own ways of making choices, my filter has always been simple – a silly little thing I do to determine whether a choice is right or wrong is to think whether my mother would approve of it. Applying that filter has never been too difficult, and I have never repented my decisions. My first internship in Shanghai, where I worked as a Finance Intern at a law firm, brought me close to questioning the validity of that filter…
The firm I worked with was relatively small and my role involved a bunch of tasks: creation of client deliverables being one them. While my approach toward the deliverables was always the present the required material in a matter-of-fact tone, and try to keep my opinions detached unless otherwise requested. About five weeks into the job, a senior accountant at the firm asked me to create a PowerPoint presentation about tax regime as it applied to foreign investors in one of Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) member states. By no measure was this difficult; I had a 30-slide presentation ready that same day and I promptly sent it to the senior accountant for his review. He sent me a note asking me to exclude a couple slides that mentioned upcoming potential changes in tax rates for the specific industry in which the client was involved.
Though I am not an expert on international tax law, I knew that if I were the client, I would want those two slides to be included in the presentation, and that was why I had included them in the first place. But when the person who is your mentor in an organization asks you to do something that you instinctively know is unethical, it gets pretty awkward, as I was about to find out. While my first reaction was not to whistle-blow to the Partners (for some reason, I thought they would take the wrong side), I did tell one of the other interns whom I trusted – to my surprise, he casually told me to do what was asked of me; I told yet another trusted aide, even she said something similar. Now despite having grown up in a household full of family, I know what it feels like to be completely alone – I had that exact feeling that day.
As conditioned, I went into my silly mode and wondered if my mother would approve of me obeying the accountant’s instruction and potentially screwing the client; it did not take more than a minute to realize what her response would be –she would disapprove; very politely, I refused the accountant’s suggestion. Next week, one of the partners asked me to make sure everything was ready for the presentation; this also meant doing proofreading the slides I had prepared the previous week. I discovered that the accountant had himself deleted those slides despite them being necessary. Influenced by the silly little thing we call the “greater good”, I added them right back in. In a couple of hours, that silly little thing hit me – right on the face! When the client saw those slides, he refused to take the accountant’s suggestion regarding the investment approach and chose another approach, which would yield lesser fees for our firm. The suits summoned me into the Managing Partner’s office and demanded an explanation for my behavior, to describe which they used the word “insolence”. Despite being upset (perhaps even a little shocked) with me, they did not fire me that day; I gave credit to their conscience (and my courage).
Having taken a Business Ethics class, I had heard of ethical dilemmas in dealing with clients. Never did I expect to face one on my very first job! Trying not to be another brick in the wall, I learnt from the experience that I did what I did, because of my family and the way they raised me – I thank them every day for being who they were, even when I wasn’t whom I should have been.