Guilt By Professional Association?


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After videos surfaced last week of Barack Obama’s preacher making incendiary comments including a reference to white America as “the U.S. of KKK A” and declaring “God damn America,” the presidential hopeful faced a firestorm of controversy. Today, the senator formally addressed his relationship with Reverend Jeremiah Wright in a speech at Philadelphia's National Constitution Center, an attempt to quell voters’ fears that their beacon of change takes cues from a pastor with anti-American sentiments.

“Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely—just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed,” Obama stated. Rev. Wright’s remarks “were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity.” But Obama didn’t chose entirely to separate himself from the preacher, who not only officiated his wedding and baptized his daughters, but was a spiritual adviser to the campaign until last Friday. “As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me,” Obama said, after describing his experience at the Trinity United Church of Christ.

New York based image consultant Samantha von Sperling says that’s the last Obama should be seeing of his pastor. “It’s harsh, but he’s got one shot and if he wants to be president he better be very careful who his associates are,” says von Sperling. And, that includes friends and family who continue to frequent Rev. Wright’s church. “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. If friends and family aren’t on the same train, he needs to get another train.”

If someone you’re closely tied to turns out to be a bad apple, don’t let the relationship poison your professional standing. “If you’re shocked by the revelation, sometimes an honest disclosure of, ‘Wow, this is new information for me, too,’ can imply your distance from the situation,” says Dr. John S. Nagy, author of Provoking Success - Uncommon Coaching for the Uncommon Soul. “If you recognize that what is being said or done directly reflects on you and your character, performance or contribution, approach the boss and say how you feel about it or ask what should be done.” If you want to aggressively distance yourself from the tension, acknowledge that you have been friendly with the person in question, but, “now see a side of them you cannot support,” says von Sperling. “Tell your boss it has changed the way you think about this person and your allegiances are to the company.”

If you prefer a more passive solution, put in for an assignment away. “Just get out of the office and get yourself on the next meeting in another town,” says von Sperling. “Go to your boss with a non sequitur and say ‘I have a great idea and need to follow it.’ It shows you’re doing your own thing.” Or, take a swift stance [with the offending person] and say, ‘I don’t want to do say or know anything. I don’t agree with it, but I can’t get involved.’

If you find out a friend at the office is engaging in criminal or illegal activities, “turn it over and let go,” says Nagy. “When it comes to moral issues, like an affair or something of that nature, if it doesn’t impact your performance at work the rule of thumb is it’s none of your business. That’s a moral implication for someone else to decide.”

But, if the controversy is public, like that of Rev. Wright, you might have to make some serious changes. “Ultimately, at the end of the day, sometimes you have to grow and move on and get rid of dead weight in your career, even if that means severing ties with people you used to like,” says von Sperling. “You have no allegiances except to you and your own self. It’s the same principal just to get ahead in the world. Keep doing what we’re doing, guilty by association.”

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