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October 12, 2005 Volume 5, Issue 41
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Looking the Other Way


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
A thiefTheft 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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Some Things I've Learned Along the Way  Next Issue
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For information about fairness issues in the workplace, check out WorkplaceFairness.org.

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

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Related articles

More articles on Ethics at Work:

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When we make a difficult decision, we sometimes know we've made the wrong choice, even before the consequences become obvious. At other times, we can be absolutely certain that we've done right, even in the face of inadequate information. When we have these feelings, we're in touch with our inner wisdom. It's a powerful resource.
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When we bring national or local political issues into the workplace — especially the divisive issues — we risk disrupting our relationships, our projects, and the company itself.
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However ethical you might be, you can't control the ethics of others. Can you tell when someone knowingly tries to mislead you? Here's Part I of a catalog of techniques misleaders use.
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Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or even more sensitive than that. Sometimes people who want to know what we know try to suspend our ability to think critically. Here are some of their techniques.
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Some risks and the plans for managing them are personnel-sensitive in the sense that disclosure can harm the enterprise or its people. Since most risk management plans are available to a broad internal audience, personnel-sensitive risks cannot be managed in the customary way. Why not?

See also Ethics at Work and Managing Your Boss for more related articles.

Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.Coming November 25: Suppressing Dissent: Part I
In some groups, disagreeing with the majority, or disagreeing with the Leader, can be a personally expensive act. Here is Part I of a set of tactics used by Leaders who choose not to tolerate dissent. Available here and by RSS on November 25.
Harry S. Truman (front, second from left) and Joseph Stalin (front, left) meeting at the Potsdam Conference on July 18, 1945And on December 2: Suppressing Dissent: Part II
Disagreeing with the majority in a meeting, or in some cases, merely disagreeing with the Leader, can lead to isolation and other personal difficulties. Here is Part II of a set of tactics used by Leaders who choose not to tolerate differences of opinion, emphasizing the meeting context. Available here and by RSS on December 2.

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Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
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