Would You Rather … ?

Integrity is at the forefront of what it means to be an actuary Olga T. Jacobs

Photo: iStock.com/MicroStockHub

Would you rather be stuck on a deserted island alone or with someone you really don’t like? Would you rather have houseguests who are always late or always early? Would you rather be forced to eat ice cream every day or never eat ice cream again? Would you rather ignore something you did wrong at work and hope nothing ever comes of it, or preemptively turn yourself in?

Integrity. How many times do you think the word integrity appears in the Code of Professional Conduct? I have read the Code countless times, and I never stopped to count the word integrity. I thought it had to be peppered throughout because being a professional actuary seems intertwined and inseparable from acting with integrity. But “integrity” only appears twice. In the section title of “Precept 1: Professional Integrity,” and in the first sentence: “An actuary shall act honestly, with integrity and competence, and in a manner to fulfill the profession’s responsibility to the public and to uphold the reputation of the actuarial profession.”

The game of “would you rather” is easy to play. It’s simple to say what you would do in a hypothetical situation. We hear the recent news stories of stealing signs in baseball and of parents who pay third parties to ensure their child gets into a prestigious university. We profess—quite loudly—at the water cooler that we would never do that. We would never do anything knowingly wrong. We are actuaries. We are professionals. We have integrity.

I was put to an integrity test many years ago. An employee who was working off-site asked me to send them a work file to their personal email account. Our company email system was not currently working for them. The file did not contain any protected health information or personally identifiable information. No company trade secrets, either. Yet, our company policy forbade this action regardless of what was in the file. I knew this, but I went ahead and sent the file.

Act done. Out of mind—for about 15 minutes. The person called me and said the file had not come through. I went back to my sent mail and saw I had mistyped the name. The file had been sent, not to this employee, but to some stranger somewhere out in the universe. It had not been rejected by the recipient’s mail server, so it had made contact. If it didn’t end up in the junk/spam folder, that meant someone had the file. What to do? Would you rather ignore something you did wrong at work and hope nothing ever comes of it, or preemptively turn yourself in?

I know in the grand scheme of doing something wrong at work, this was on the level of a dust mite. But it really bothered me. It weighed on my mind. Did I have integrity? No, I did not. I did not follow the company policy. Should I turn myself in?

I called my employer’s ethics hotline and said I violated the company policy. I told them about this tiny little dust mite of a transgression. I thought they would say, “Oh, Olga, don’t worry. There was no reason to call. Go and have a great day.” Nope. Instead I got a case number, an attorney assigned to investigate and an investigation. OMG!

Life is full of the daily dust mite-level choices of whether we have integrity or not. Much less common are the monumental grizzly bear-sized integrity choices; those hopefully happen once—or never.

When you think of integrity, think about doing what is right when no one is looking. And if you make a mistake, admit it and correct it. Note, that in my recap of this event, I did not share with you whether this colleague was on my team, a peer or a senior leader because it should not matter. Acting with integrity does not depend on whom you are involved with. Because the answer to “would you rather” in the game of integrity has only one answer.

Olga T. Jacobs, FSA, MAAA, is a vice president at UnitedHealthcare and a contributing editor for The Actuary.

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