A coworker is spotted stealing pricey office supplies. Another isn’t coming clean about the fact that they’re having trouble completing an important project. Still another is getting creative with the company financials. Are any of these deeds worth reporting? And if so, can you do so without earning a reputation as a tattletale?
Part of the reason ethical issues get so sticky is that we believe they are a test of our morals, which can lead us to make less rational decisions. But even when emotions are left out, ethical issues at work are rarely black and white. Motivations to turn a blind eye when we know something doesn’t pass the smell test include a fear of speaking out against those with more power, a conflict of interest, and a loosening of standards.
This kind of reasoning is behind some of the biggest ethical breaches in recent history, such as the garment factory fire in Bangladesh, Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, even the failure to report Jerry Sandusky’s crimes, according to Harvard professor Max Bazerman.
Recent research indicates that leaders may self-select based on whether the industry has ethics challenges. Both men and women pursue prestigious careers, but Jessica Kennedy, a management professor at Vanderbilt University, posits that gender may play a role in which industries they gravitate towards.
In an experiment where participants had to record their level of moral outrage at particular scenarios, women exhibited greater reservations about sacrificing ethical values than men did. When Kennedy told participants that a particular job required them to compromise ethical values, men’s interest in the position didn’t change, while the women’s dropped significantly.
Kennedy says that ethical standards are frequently seen as obstacles, rather than an integral part of excellent performance. She told Strategy+Business:
My data suggests that if you want to avoid ethical misconduct at your company, you might want some lower-ranking people or some people who don’t identify highly with your organization as part of the groups that are making important decisions. Ideally, you’d have a culture that encourages lower-ranking people to speak up when they perceive something to be unethical.
Telling yourself it isn’t a big deal, or that it’s not in your job description to police others will only prolong a problem and potentially make it worse, because you are reframing the situation so you don’t have to feel bad about it. Instead, experts advise thinking about your underlying motivation for staying mum. Fear of retaliation is often made bigger in your mind.
Does it affect only you, your team, or the business as a whole? Assessing what is at risk–a lawsuit, money, a customer relationship–could reinforce the reason to either speak out or stay quiet.
Namely that of the perpetrator. Understand why they may be acting in a certain way, and it may not be bad. For example, the person who skips out early may still be getting all their work done, just not during the same hours as everyone else. Others aren’t acting unethically as a whole, they may just want to alleviate the immediate burden of confrontation.
Talking to that person before going to their supervisor will give them the opportunity to explain and potentially change their ways. It’s important to remember to ask questions, and not immediately point an accusatory finger, which could backfire.
If the person with questionable ethics is your boss, it’s best to proceed with caution. Joseph Grenny, co-author of Crucial Accountability, tells Fast Company that you should begin by letting your boss know you have their best interest in mind. “This shows your purpose is not to question their authority, but to do the right thing.” Likewise, it is important to explain to them why you won’t participate in unethical practices, and what consequence you see as a result of the company’s bad behavior.