Looking the Other Way
by Rick Brenner
Sometimes when we notice wrongdoing, and we aren't directly involved, we don't report it, and we don't intervene. We look the other way. Typically, we do this to avoid the risks of making a report. But looking the other way is also risky. What are the risks of looking the other way?
When we see wrongdoing at work, the temptation to look away is strong. To report wrongdoing can entail risk of retaliation, risk to relationships, risk of termination, and even risk to life and limb. But these are only the most evident risks. Less evident are the risks of looking the other away, which vary with the nature of the wrongdoing. Here are some of those risks.
- Unfair treatment based on race, religion, sex, age, sexual orientation, or ethnicity implies two things. First, it weakens the organization, which is deprived of contributions it pays for. Second, since you yourself have a race, a religion, a sex, and so on, you could be next.
- The risks of looking away
can be just as serious as
the risks of taking action
- Although rarely formal, cronyism is a form of tribalism. When people make decisions based on tribalism, rather than on the merits, decision quality suffers. And because those in the excluded tribes feel frozen out, they're more likely to move on — possibly to a competitor.
- Bullies use coercion to control the behavior of both targets and bystanders, which inevitably deprives the organization of contributions that would otherwise be available. Bullying might even drive some out of the organization. When bystanders are decision makers, bullies can affect the course of the enterprise.
- Theft and goldbricking
- Theft from the company, or its cousin, goldbricking, hurts the company economically. Damage arises both from the actual losses and from the security measures that are deployed to control those losses. Theft and goldbricking can jeopardize the company's financial health, and thus the job security of the employees.
- Sexual, political, or religious harassment
- Harassment intended to procure favors, contributions, or espousal of belief can also distort organizational posture. When we make decisions on the basis of personal beliefs, biases, or proclivities, we enhance the likelihood of acting contrary to the interests of the organization and its stakeholders.
When we look the other way, there's a good chance that we're acting unethically, but deciding that question can get pretty sticky. It's usually much easier to decide whether inaction ultimately leads to harm to the organization or to ourselves. When patterns of wrongdoing become entrenched, the organization risks eclipse by a healthier one, and it risks forcible transformation by regulatory authorities or stakeholders.
Still, taking individual direct action might not be a smart course, because the offenders can retaliate. A bully or harasser might turn on you, or if management is involved, reporting the problem could be career suicide. But looking away can create ethical problems, and hanging around could be a kind of career suicide that just takes longer. If you have no option that leads to effective change, consider moving on. The sooner the better. Top Next Issue
For information about fairness issues in the workplace, check out WorkplaceFairness.org.
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More articles on Ethics at Work:
- Tornado Warning
- When organizations go astray ethically, and their misdeeds come to light, people feel shocked, as if they've been swept up by a tornado. But ethical storms do have warning signs. Can you recognize them?
- Email Ethics
- Ethics is the system of right and wrong that forms the foundation of civil society. Yet, when a new technology arrives, explicitly extending the ethical code seems necessary — no matter how civil the society. And so it is with email.
- When You Aren't Supposed to Say: Part I
- Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or possibly even more sensitive than that. When we encounter individuals who try to extract that information, we're better able to protect it if we know their techniques.
- Difficult Decisions
- Some decisions are difficult because they trigger us emotionally. They involve conflicts of interest, yielding to undesirable realities, or possibly pain and suffering for the deciders or for others. How can we make these emotionally difficult decisions with greater clarity and better outcomes?
- On the Appearance of Impropriety
- Avoiding the appearance of impropriety is a frequent basis of business decisions. What does this mean, what are the consequences of such avoiding, and when is it an appropriate choice?
See also Ethics at Work and Managing Your Boss for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
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- One dysfunction of face-to-face meetings is the Trip to Abilene, which leads groups to make decisions no members actually support. It can afflict virtual meetings, too, even more easily. Available here and by RSS on March 4.
- And on March 11: Historical Debates at Work
- One obstacle to high performance in teams is the historical debate — arguing about who said what and when, or who agreed to what and when. Here are suggestions for ending and preventing historical debates. Available here and by RSS on March 11.
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