The dilemma of reporting ethical issues at work

Raising concerns about misconduct at work might be one of the hardest things to do for most of us. We often know what the right thing to do is but we over-think it, focus on the possible negative impact of bringing up issues and finally opt for the safest choice – turn a blind eye to malpractice.

We might even rationalise, why me? Let someone else do it! It’s not my job to deal with this. Besides, why would anyone care about what I have to say?

It’s never easy to have to deal with malpractice. It’s not easy to deal with it amongst peers and much less to have to deal with it coming from someone in a high power position. Nevertheless, try as we may to repress our urge to do what’s right, the truth is that we will only feel good about ourselves if we don’t stay silent.

Speaking up and being honest about what worries us can actually have health benefits. They say that ‘the truth will set us free’ and recent research has indeed shown that people regret inaction more than they do actions that didn’t go well. Therefore, the best way to be free, avoid regrets and ill health is to be true to ourselves, to take action and to stand for what’s right.

There are, however, a number of things we can do to make sure our concerns are well founded and stand on solid grounds.

Is it worth it?

The first thing to do is to establish whether the ethical issue you are confronted with is worth pursuing because, truth be told, we have all at one point or another, inadvertently or purposely, acted in a way that breaks our company’s code of conduct or ethical stand.

Imagine you notice a colleague making a personal call using the office telephone. Although this constitutes the misuse of the company’s property, if your colleague is using the phone to check on the health of their child when their own phone is out of credit, the issue would be perceived differently from that of a colleague who uses the company’s property to pursue a personal business venture during working hours.

It is important to know what type of misconduct or breach of a company’s policies has taken place. Some of the most common unethical behaviours in the workplace involve the misuse of the company’s time (we all know people who spend far too much time on social media during working hours), property (this includes phones, printers, stationary, computers, etc.) and assets (company cars, credit cards, properties, etc.). Fraudulent activities, such as mismanagement of the company’s funds and expenses, offering or accepting bribes and faking documents are also on the list, as are employee theft and abuse of power or bullying in the workplace.

It is also important to know whether the act of misconduct is a one off, perhaps a genuine mistake, in which case you may choose to have a friendly word with the person concerned to highlight the fact that they’re doing something differently from the way the company’s code of conduct establishes. Should you choose this approach, make sure that you do not come across as patronising! Avoid telling the person how they should or shouldn’t do things, and focus on highlighting the way their current actions may be improved and aligned with the company’s culture.

Not brave enough? Don’t worry! Not everyone feels ready to address a perceived issue directly, and I do not recommend you do it without having carefully thought about it and rehearsed what to say.

If the issue is severe, it is best not to approach the person directly but to make sure there is enough evidence to suggest a serious breach of the code of conduct or of a policy and to then escalate it via the correct channels.

How to go about it?

Most companies, large or small, have some sort of ethical code or code of conduct that is shared with all employees. In it, there should be some guidance as to how to raise concerns at work.

Usually, the correct channel involves opening up to your immediate line manager, who will, in turn, escalate this to their manager or Head of HR, depending on the concern. But there are situations where the wrong-doer might be your own manager or someone higher up in the company, which could make it hard for you to follow the standard practice. In this case, it is essential to be guaranteed confidentiality and anonymity from either a manager or HR colleague you trust before sharing your concerns, in order to placate any potential action taken against you in retaliation.

Sounds daunting? That’s because it is! Standing up for what is right can be a very intimidating prospect, particularly if you are doing it alone. Is that reason enough not to do it? Absolutely not!!

What next?

Once you have been guaranteed anonymity by those set to follow up and investigate the potential misconduct you can get on with your work knowing that you have done the right thing. You may have saved a colleague from further bullying; you may have saved the company a lot of money in stolen capital or even prevented a media scandal!

Whatever the issue raised may be, you can be free from the fear and guilt of an undisclosed concern and stand with integrity at work as a true example of what ethical working culture is.