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Ethics in the Workplace: Dealing with an Unethical Colleague

Posted by FGP Intl. on 06/16/11 -

Unfortunately, most of us at some point or another in our careers will come face to face with a colleague or supervisor practicing unethical behavior.  Whether it’s making long-distance calls on the company’s dime, harassing colleagues, or performing illegal activity like embezzling or falsifying records, unethical behavior can be extremely difficult to deal with delicately. 

While the responsibility for addressing behaviors such as these, whether with disciplinary actions or more informal methods, rests with the company’s leadership, employees who witness the unethical actions of others immediately face a difficult decision: do you turn a blind eye, or do you do something about it?

There are, of course, issues you will have to confront on both sides.  If you ignore the behavior, you face the possibility of having your own moral crisis, or – especially if the behavior is illegal – even being implicated yourself.  If you become aware of illegal behavior, the best decision is virtually always to let a supervisor or manager know, both for your own sake and for the sake of the company.
However, it can be much more difficult to know what to do when you witness actions or behaviors that fall in that gray area between right and wrong.   Because each person has his or her own ideas of what is truly unethical, and what it might be ok to let slide, there is no single correct answer other than to listen to your conscience.

If you do decide to take action, there will be additional choices to make.  Do you go directly to a supervisor, or do you confront the employee who is engaging in the unethical behavior?  As discussed on the blog “Anonymous Employee,” many companies have taken steps to make this decision easier by formulating company policies and protocol on reporting unethical behavior.  The most effective policies include detailed information regarding both the method for reporting the behavior, and the repercussions that the accused person will face; this way, the person reporting can know for sure that the individual engaging in the unethical behavior will be treated fairly and according to established rules.  Without these rules, someone who is considering making a report may hesitate, as there is no guarantee that a person who is making a few personal long-distance phone calls at work will be treated less harshly than a person who bullies or harasses his or her colleagues.

In the absence of a written company policy, the decision to report unethical behavior can be more stressful.  The most important thing is to use your best judgment: if the behavior is relatively benign, it is probably a good idea to speak to the person directly.  It may be that he or she isn’t aware that the behavior is truly wrong and will end it upon being politely confronted.  The person may also stop once he or she realizes that the behavior is being noticed.  

If, however, the behavior is causing harm or distress to someone else, or if you feel absolutely certain that the behavior is wrong, it may be best to go to a supervisor or manager so that he or she can deal with it in a way that conforms to company policy.  

While dealing with unethical behavior is never easy, it can be much harder on your peace of mind to ignore it.

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