It is no surprise that addressing unethical behavior in the workplace can be very complicated. Even though people may notice objectively unethical practices occurring within their workplace, many chose to remain silent. In “A Proactive Approach to Addressing Unethical Behavior in the Workplace,” Burton Goldfield refers to a survey by the authors of Crucial Accountability to explore this problem. He shares that the survey found that people were hesitant to report unethical behavior for four main reasons: knowledge that doing so would make it harder to work with the perpetrator, fear of damaging their own career, fear of not being taken seriously, or lack of knowledge about how to address concerns. The following will discuss the complexities of responding to unethical behavior in the workplace. Practical advice for taking action will also be provided.
People may have mixed reactions when they witness unethical behavior at work. Some will want to act immediately by confronting the perpetrator or discussing concerns with HR personnel. On the other hand, some people may have doubts or fears about speaking up. Some may fear possible retaliation, while others worry that they are making a big deal out of nothing. “How to Speak Up About Ethical Issues at Work,” by Amy Gallo, discusses the risk of rationalizing cases of unethical behavior. The article explains that if a practice or behavior in the workplace makes you very uncomfortable, but you find yourself making excuses for what happened or why you don’t need to get involved, you may be rationalizing a true issue. Instead of using rationalization to sweep problems under the rug, the article encourages people to further analyze the situation. Gallo calls on advice from Mary Gentile, author of Giving Voice to Values, who stresses the importance of considering why you are bothered by an unethical situation at work. She suggests identifying which of your values are being violated by the unethical situation when deciding if and how to address the concern. Doing so will help put a finger on why you are uncomfortable, and it will help you determine if the behavior may be harmful to the entire organization.
Before responding to a case of unethical behavior, it is important to weigh the pros and cons of doing so. Gallo states that it is important to consider whether speaking up will help the organization as a whole. Do you personally have a problem with a coworker’s behavior, or can their behavior damage the entire organization by causing distrust or even legal trouble? In other words, how severe is the problem and who is negatively impacted? In addition to analyzing the severity of the concern, Gallo notes that it is important to consider possible negative consequences of speaking up such as getting fired or socially ostracized. Note that the cons of responding to unethical behavior can be limited by how you respond.
Gallo also calls on advice from James Detert, a management professor at Cornell University. Both Detert and Gentile agree that the best way to address unethical practices is to first discuss your concern with the perpetrator. Do realize that this does not apply in very severe cases. They explain the importance of initiating dialogue with the perpetrator by expressing concern and asking questions that will help clarify the situation. Confronting the perpetrator with accusations and blame is ill advised and not productive. It is important to remember that the perpetrator may be acting out of fear or under the direction of their superiors. They may need outsider prospective to truly grasp the unethical reality of their actions. The article explains that addressing unethical behavior in a constructive manner may result in the perpetrator reanalyzing his/her actions. You may be able to help the perpetrator find an ethical way to address his/her dilemma.
Daniel Victor discusses another complexity of responding to unethical behavior in his article, “When the Boss Wants You to Do Something Unethical.” It is one thing to witness coworkers or subordinates engaging in unethical practices, but what if your boss directly instructs you to do something wrong? As with Gallo, Detert, and Gentile, Victor agrees that you should first address concerns with the perpetrator, even if the perpetrator is your boss. He recommends clarifying instructions with your boss before jumping to conclusions. It is possible that there may have been a misunderstanding. The article states, “Explain why the request made you uneasy. If you can, cite specific company policies that it seems to defy.” It is possible that your boss will reconsider his/her instructions if a specific policy violation is defined. He/she may even state that they never intended to have you to violate a policy (whether or not this is actually true). If your boss does not change the instruction, at least the conversation gives you proof of his/her ill intentions. At this point, it is time to decide whether or not to discuss concerns with HR or management.
Gallo and Victor both discuss the cons of reporting unethical behavior in their respective articles. Job loss, retaliation, and/or social ostracization are all legitimate possibilities. Victor echoes Gallo’s point that HR and management may very well ignore complaints about unethical behavior. They may side with the perpetrator or they may be fearful of retaliation, so filing a complaint does not always guarantee that an objective investigation will occur. That said, some organizations may have means to respond to unethical behavior that protects the confidentiality of the whistleblower. For example, some organizations may have an independent whistleblower hotline that allows individuals to anonymously submit their concerns. Having a formal and well-known process for reporting cases of unethical behavior is one way organizations show that they value integrity in the workplace.
If addressing concerns with the perpetrator fails and your organization does not act appropriately when unethical behavior is reported, you can be put in a very troubling situation. Understandably, many people remain silent in these circumstances so that they can keep their job and provide for their family. That said, Vince notes that finding a new job may wind up being the best option. If reporting unethical behavior will likely result in job loss, here are some questions to consider: What is the likelihood that you will be hired by a new organization? Might potential employers value your integrity and commitment to doing what is right in the face of uncertainty? How will whistleblowing impact your career? These are all tough yet valuable questions to consider.
In summary, in depth consideration of how to respond to cases of unethical behavior in the workplace is critical for achieving positive outcomes. In many cases, it is best practice to address concerns with the perpetrator. Doing so can help clarify the situation and determine why undesirable practices are occurring. If confronting the perpetrator fails or if doing so would be unreasonable, it is important to consider the possible consequences of reporting concerns to HR or management. Choosing to address cases of unethical behavior takes careful planning and courage but doing so may keep your organization out of serious trouble and help you sleep better at night.