Ethical Issues


How to Speak Up About Ethical Issues at Work by Amy Gallo JUNE 04, 2015

Sometimes you sense that something isn’t right at work. You suspect that your fnance colleague might be fudging numbers, your boss isn’t telling his manager the truth about an important project, or your co-worker is skipping out of the ofce early but leaving her computer on so it looks like she’s just down the hall. How do you know when it’s worth speaking up or not? Can you you protect yourself from potential consequences of calling out bad behavior? And when you do decide to say something, what do you say and to whom?

What the Experts Say “Most of us don’t face a billion-dollar fraud or an issue where someone’s going to die tomorrow,”


says James Detert, a management professor at Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management and author of “Why Employees Are Afraid to Speak.” But even minor issues can have serious consequences. “Ethical situations at work can be cause for alarm, and are also a normal part of doing business,” says Detert. The key is to not let either of those realities prevent you from making a rational decision. “When it comes to ethics, we think it’s a test of our moral identity, which makes us more emotional, less efective, and vulnerable to self-deluding,” says Mary Gentile, author of Giving Voice to Values and director of a program by the same name at Babson College. That’s why it’s important to not only know how to recognize an ethical issue but how to raise it — especially one that may be more of a gray area, she says. “There is no one strategy or answer for all situations,” she says. “The key is to practice ahead of time, before a situation arrives so you’re ready when it does.” Here are some tips on what to do if you fnd yourself in a sticky situation.

Watch for rationalizations “If something happens and you get that feeling in your gut that something’s dodgy, a lot of preemptive rationalizations come in,” says Gentile. That’s because fear takes over. “Studies show that people are likely to overestimate how awful the confrontation will be, how terrible the retaliation will be, and how long the retaliation will last. You build up all the personal horrible consequences and fnd ways to avoid the harm or loss,” says Detert. The most common rationalizations include: It’s not a big deal. I don’t have all the information. This is someone else’s responsibility. This must be the way these things are done (at our company, in this region, in our industry, etc). “Statements like these allow us to recognize the problem and still feel not feel bad about not doing anything about it,” says Detert. “It’s not that these statements are false,” says Gentile, “they’re just not the whole truth.” If you fnd yourself rationalizing in this way, question your underlying assumption. For example, “think about how many times someone says ‘no big deal’ when it’s actually a big deal,” says Detert.

Consider what’s really at risk You also want to be clear with yourself about what’s happening. If your coworker is leaving early every day, is it worth doing something about? One could make the argument that she’s stealing time from the company and therefore taking money that’s not hers. But if she gets her work done, does it really matter? Gentile suggests asking yourself: What is the value that’s being violated here? Why is this troubling me? Detert says to consider whether it’s important to just you personally or to the larger group, either your team or the organization. Being clear about the issue will help you accurately weigh the pros and cons of addressing it.

Understand why people are acting the way they are A useful skill when it comes to ethical situations is perspective-taking. Rather than casting your colleague as bad, seek to understand the reasons behind her actions. Typically, people have an understandable (if not defensible) motivation. Your fnance colleague may be fudging the numbers because he wants to make his boss look good or he’s afraid of losing his job. Put yourself in your colleague’s shoes and try to understand what she’s trying to achieve. Gentile gives the example of someone she knows who was asked by her boss to hide the frm’s underperformance over the


previous year. “Her boss wanted her to fnd a diferent benchmark that would make it look like the frm had done OK,” says Gentile. The woman thought about her boss’s goal in this scenario and “decided that he wasn’t invested in being unethical but he wanted to get through a tough conversation with a client that afternoon.” This information helped the woman decide how to respond to his request because she now understood “what was at risk for him” and instead of doing what he asked, she could provide him with information that would help him get through the conversation.

Weigh the pros and cons “Only each of us individually can decide which issues we’re willing to lay it on the line for,” says Detert. So consider your situation carefully. What would be the beneft of speaking up? What would the consequences be if you didn’t? One of the biggest pros of saying something is that you might help the business, especially if the unethical behavior puts the company at risk of a lawsuit, damaging an important customer relationship, or losing money. You might also feel better about yourself if you don’t stay silent. Detert says that research has shown that people regret inaction more than they do actions that didn’t go well. The cons will be very situational but might include the fact that the situation is unlikely to change or you are the sole earner in your household and can’t risk losing your job. “There may be consequences and there may be times that you don’t speak up because the positives don’t outweigh the negatives,” says Gentile. Detert adds: “We live in a society where most of us are dependent on employers for salary and benefts and we don’t have the power that allows us to be free moral agents. None of us will be able to speak up about every problematic ethical issue. We are all compromisers in that regard.”

Talk to the perpetrator frst Detert and Gentile agree that when you suspect someone is acting unethically, in most cases, you should talk to him frst. You might be tempted to go to your boss or your colleague’s boss, but it’s often better to give the person the beneft of the doubt and assume that, when he sees how his behavior is perceived, he’ll change. Give him the opportunity to correct his ways or to at least explain himself before you escalate. That said, if the violation is a particularly serious one, with potentially grave consequences, you may need to go to your boss, speak to HR, or call your company’s ethics hotline immediately.

Rehearse If you decide to say something to your colleague, don’t go in cold. “Spend some time with a trusted peer, your spouse, or a good friend — someone you can talk the situation through with in a non- defensive, open way – to test your reasoning and develop an action plan,” advises Gentile. If you build confdence by rehearsing, then you’ll have more energy to engage in the conversation. And “you won’t have to rehearse as much in the future, when the same type of issues come up over and over,” adds Gentile.

Ask questions, don’t accuse Broaching the subject by saying, “I think what you’re doing is wrong,” or giving a lecture on morality


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