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Dealing With Ethical Challenges In the Workplace

You’ve just come on board with a new company. You’re heading the sales division. So far, you like the people you’re supervising, most of whom have been at the company a long time.

However, you start to notice some behaviors that make you uncomfortable. The people on your staff manipulate the sales figures they report to your bosses so they’ll get bigger bonuses. They don’t try to hide it from you, so it’s apparently something they were doing before you took over.

You start to notice some other ethical problems. Some of your sales people are giving their favored customers information about purchases their competitors are making. Others are padding expense accounts. One person seems to have several drinks at lunch every day, and may even drink on the job.

The salespeople tell you that the company’s purchasing department sometimes buys cheap, defective products, even potentially hazardous ones, to save money, and the sales staff passes them along to customers.

Your new knowledge is disturbing, but this is a talented, hard-working group and your division is posting great numbers.

What do you do?

Another scenario: You’ve just been promoted to a high-level executive position. Your CEO has a trusted consultant that you suspect is giving the CEO inaccurate financial analyses. If you’re right, it could be very bad for the company.

However, the CEO brought you into your high-level position from lower management. You’re still learning the ropes. The consultant is a long-time friend of the CEO.

Do you speak up?

Studies show that a lot of managers choose to stay quiet. They tell themselves that it’s no big deal – after all, none of the customers have complained so far – or that it’s business as usual. Maybe they feel loyal to their staff or their boss or their coworkers who might get harmed. Maybe they’re not sure it’s their responsibility. More likely, though, they know what the right thing to do is and they’re rationalizing their silence.

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A Bloomberg article identified different personality types in terms of how they deal with ethical problems on the job:

  • The Conformist: The conformist is an employee who follows rules rather than questions authority figures. The conformist might look the other way, however, if a higher-up were acting unethically.
  • The Negotiator: Negotiators try to make up rules as they go. When faced with a sketchy situation they might wait to see if anyone else notices.
  • The Navigator: Navigators are able to rely on an innate ethical sense to guide their actions, even if these decisions aren’t easy. The navigator has a sound moral compass, which provides the flexibility to make choices, even unpopular ones.
  • The Wiggler: The wiggler takes the route that’s most personally advantageous. The wiggler might lie to please a supervisor, for example. The wiggler is motivated by self-interest, whether the goal is getting on a manager’s good side or avoiding conflict.

Still, speaking up can be difficult, especially when the questionable behavior seems ingrained. Those who report wrongdoing run the risk of repercussions from peers and/or higher-ups.

For people who are reticent to speak up about ethical violations, experts say a shift in perspective and approach can make the difference. Recognize that speaking up is an implied or explicit duty of your job. Have the courage to challenge your own rationalizations. Turn being a “newbie” into an asset. (“I’m sorry if I don’t understand, but should the sales staff be inflating their numbers this way?”) Quantify the long-term risks of the unethical behavior, and propose safeguards and alternative ways of doing things.

Obviously, it’s best to create an office atmosphere that fosters ethical behavior in the first place, and to establish clear procedures for dealing with ethical lapses. Among the steps experts recommend:

  • Develop a workplace policy based on your company’s philosophy and code of conduct, and consistently hold employees accountable. Have them sign forms that indicate they understand the workplace ethics policy.
  • Provide workplace ethics training to employees.
  • Designate an ombudsperson in charge of handling employees’ informal concerns pertaining to workplace ethics. Let them report concerns confidentially, perhaps through a hotline.
  • Research federal, state and municipal labor and employment laws pertaining to whistle-blowing. Seek legal advice for employee reports of workplace ethics issues that increase your organization’s liability.
  • Apply your workplace policy consistently when addressing workplace issues and employee concerns about workplace ethics.
  • Realize that ethical dilemmas are a normal and predictable part of your job. Treat an ethical issue like any other business issue.
  • Tackle rationalizations head-on. If “everyone does it,” why do we have a policy against this behavior?
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