03/16/2012 04:32 EDT | Updated 05/16/2012 05:12 EDT

Feel That Hand? Yeah, That's Because We're All Muppets


Few in business have caused such a stir as Greg Smith, who publicly resigned this week from famed Wall Street investment bank Goldman Sachs by way of the the New York Times.

The fallout from his decision to give up a job that paid him millions with an accusation that his now-former employer created a toxic and destructive environment has been astonishing. He said the people at Goldman referred to clients as "Muppets" and regularly exploited them to suit the firm's own greedy ends.

There is likely more than a grain of truth to what he says, since not long ago the company paid out in excess of half-a-billion dollars to settle an action brought by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Millions more were paid out to settle other actions, but for Goldman these seem just to be the costs of making huge profits.

There was the predictable reaction from allies of the firm, which tried to paint Mr. Smith as disgruntled and disloyal. People who have been on the inside, and have challenged the power structure rarely do so to a chorus of cheers from former colleagues. Their futures can be unpleasant and costly. I sketched out some of my personal experiences on that subject last week on these pages, and based on the reaction I have received, I am not alone in dealing with the aftermath of a poisoned work environment that continues to follow you long after you leave.

You have to wonder sometimes why anyone does this. The answer seems to be that they reach a stage in life that is something of a moral demarcation. To go beyond that point in silence is no longer possible.

Decisions like these rarely take place precipitously. Most people in these situations, like Jeffrey Wigand, who blew the whistle on big tobacco, have been with their organizations for years. Often their work is the centrepoint of their life. Friends are usually drawn from work. But then that day arrives. It might turn up completely out of the blue, as happened in my case, and within minutes your life is never the same. Or it might be a slower process of ethical insults that builds over time, so that when you finally reach the point where you stand up and opt out, it seems all but unavoidable.

One thing is clear. These life-altering decisions are always based on moral principle. Some people can only veer so far away from the bearings on their moral compass. At the end of the day, all we have is our sense of self-respect, our integrity, and our name. It says something positive about the human condition that there are still those whose conscience is not just some transactional commodity that can be sold out to the highest bidder. For some, turning a blind eye to deception and dishonesty just doesn't fit with how we want our children to remember us -- or how we want to remember ourselves.

Perhaps if more insiders had come forward to expose wrongdoing, and irregularities at the major U.S. banks and investment houses a few years ago, the impact of the financial meltdown leading to the Great Recession might have been softened.

Here's another thought about why Mr. Smith's actions struck a chord. The cold reality today is that whether we are dealing with a huge government bureaucracy, or a giant telephone company, we are all rather hapless captives of big organizations we know don't care about us, and aren't always being completely honest in their dealings with us. When it comes right down to it, we are all really just Muppets.

Except for when we decide to do something about it.