I checked into my hotel at the Disney World Resorts and went to my room. I could hear people splashing and playing in the water right outside my door on a fake sandy beach that's, quite honestly, just as good as the real ones. The sun was out, baking everyone a bright red, and I had a guest card in my pocket that meant I could pretty much order any food or services at a moment's notice.

I looked through my suitcase. I had three pairs of dress pants and three dress shirts. I had left the flip-flops, the suntan lotion,  the casual shirts, and the swimming trunks at home. I winced a little and put on my conference badge, dropped a laptop bag over my shoulder, put on my Oxfords, and headed to the resort shuttle.

This was quite a few years ago now, but I remember the decision like it was yesterday because it made such a profound impact on my business career. At the time, I was a "rising star" (cough cough) in the corporate world, ready for plunder. By the end of my tenure, I would be leading a team of 50 people and taking on high-profile projects left and right, but I had just started out. I was a total newb in the tech world.

When I got back from the conference--a Gartner Group expo designed to train future IT leaders--my boss asked me what I had learned. Well, he asked me for more than that. He was a former business analyst from what was then called Andersen Consulting (now Accenture). I liked him, and he had promoted me quickly, so I respected his approach. He asked for a breakdown of where I was, what I did, and what I learned. He wanted it by the end of the day.

It was an interesting request, especially since I had traveled with a couple of other colleagues. One of them was conspicuously absent during some of the meet and greets and evening soirees, and I swear she wasn't at any of the most important sessions. My employer had paid for everything and was expecting a detailed breakdown of expenses, but I was surprised when my boss asked for a detailed breakdown of everything. I had no idea that was even a thing.

Fortunately, I never gave into the temptation to skip sessions and just hang out at the beach and drink lemonade. I think it might have saved my career. I was there to educate myself. Sure, it was wonderful to be at that location, to walk outside during breaks and catch some rays. My boss was pleased with my report and how I was able to prove I actually attended every session. My colleague wasn't so lucky. She ended up getting a demotion a few months later and eventually left the company.

I hate being legalistic. There's always a fudge factor in business, and none of us are perfect. If I had skipped one session and just lingered at that fake beach, I would have been perfectly fine (but maybe a little more tan). The truth is, even Gartner gave us free time and I did go for a long walk around the resort. Is it dishonest to grab an extra can of free Coke and take it back to your room? Probably not.

The problem is that, when you check your integrity at the door in business, it always leads to problems. Big problems. In my example at the conference, skipping sessions would have been a poor use of my conference dollars. It also tends to twist something inside of me. I become just a little less upfront with people, a little less open about my choices, a little more cutthroat. I'm not talking about gray areas here or being aggressive as a salesperson or hungry to build a new business. When it comes to integrity, the best definition I've heard is that you act consistently in all situations. You don't compromise your belief system or values to suit your whims. You make many small choices that lead to a life of sound character and good repute.

Honesty is essential not just because of some grand moral code, but because the only other option is to compromise who you are, what you believe, and how you want to live. That's why, to this day, when I go to conferences, I always embrace them fully. I go to every session. I arrange extra meetings and attend the evening events. I'm sometimes the first to arrive and the last to leave, not because I particularly like every booth at a trade-show, but because I feel I am there to work as hard as possible and make sure I make the most of my time. I do this mostly so that, when I get back from a week-long conference and someone asks me about, I can stay honest.

This character-of-conduct applies in many other situations beyond a trade-show. The sales chart data, the quarterly presentation, the meeting with your boss. It's important to think: How will this decision bring repercussions? More importantly, how will I change if I make this compromise and who do I become?

Have you experienced something similar? Have good choices and good decisions led to a sense that you did the right thing and have character? Or have bad choices led to a sense that you compromised not just the values of the company, but who you are as a person? There are no gray areas when it comes to what you believe about yourself and your values. Our personal character is always in living color.

Published on: Dec 1, 2015