Should I Report Ethical Misconduct At Work(Poll Included)

by The Happy Rock on November 11, 2007

The Simple Dollar tackled this question this week, and it really got me thinking. I must admit that I was surprised at the non-confrontational I can’t be a tattler sentiment in the article and in the comments. Somehow it feels frustrating that this is the accepted culture of business, but I guess that is reality. If I am honest with myself, it isn’t any easy decision for me either.

With as a backdrop I wanted to explore some of the feeling and perspectives that feed into our current ethical reality.

  1. Reporting someone else’s unethical behavior reminds us of all our own failures. No one is perfect; we would rather not face our own rough edges, so we don’t want to bring up someone else’s.
  2. We don’t want others reporting/exposing us.
  3. We fear ruining relationships with our coworkers.
  4. We fear being wrong and being humiliated by making false accusations.
  5. We don’t think the behavior is all that bad.
  6. We don’t think about the personal impact these situations can have. Unethical behaviors in the workplace have unseen consequences. Often our own ethical standards are subconsciously lowered. Resentment by other group members can arise. Coworker productivity can be affected.
  7. We don’t trust our companies to handle the situation with tact. Maybe they will overreact to a small infraction, or maybe they won’t address a major infraction. Or maybe they will force us to take front stage throughout the whole investigation.
  8. We don’t think about the company’s perspective. Try framing the situation such that you are a business owner. Would you want to know when someone is cooking the books, or selling office supplies on eBay, or not working all of their hours?
  9. People assume that management already knows. Although it is often the case that management isn’t as in touch with the day to day operations as we think.

I am not going to go into detail about which of those are good or bad, but the list can provide us with excellent thought points. Personally, I would love to see companies create cultures where unethical behavior is not accepted(that includes within me). They need to recognize that pointing out someone’s unethical behavior is a very hard decision, and create a policy and culture that helps make that decision as easy as possible. This includes handling each case tactfully and appropriately.

Below is a poll that will attempt to capture the overall sentiment towards reporting unethical behavior:

Opinion Polls & Market Research

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Double Eagle November 12, 2007 at 1:02 pm

I think the idea of a company culture where unethical behavior is not accepted is only part of the equation.

Another piece of the puzzle is: where is the line drawn? Clearly, some things are an instant no-brainer decision.

But what about other things that are not so clear? What about surfing the web here and there throughout the day? What about having a 20 minute conversation with a coworker about golf and not making up the time later in the day? What about using a company printer to print out directions to some place you’re going after work to hang out?

Those things are all violations of my company’s policies.

I’m definitely a “right is right and wrong is wrong” person, but is it realistic to be the person that reports all the instances of that kind of thing? We’re really talking about things that management will tell you are against the rules, but might also be considered informal perks for employees, so long as they accomplish what they need to with their work tasks.

In those cases, we’re talking about a culture of management acceptance of those things. Who does the unethical behavior belong to there?

And when the line is drawn, there has to be enforcement after that.

My feeling is that a company should not just lay out policies about what is accepted and what is not. It should also enforce those policies so employees understand that the behavior will not be tolerated. Many times, these things are trivial for employers to track – web surfing, login times (or time card/gate entry times), extended conversations, etc. They need to be enforced so that people like me aren’t put in the position of having to figure out if something is bad enough that it needs to be reported.

Why put me in the position of having to report something that management can easily find out on its own and where I have to worry about damaging relationships or my own reputation by blowing the whistle? The big stuff is easy – harassment, embezzlement, fraud, etc. It’s the little things that aren’t so clear.


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