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

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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.

Discrimination
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.
Cronyism
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.
Bullying
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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More articles on Ethics at Work:

Two infants telling secretsYou Have to Promise Not to Tell a Soul
You're at lunch with one of your buddies, who's obviously upset. You ask why. "You have to promise not to tell a soul," is the response. You promise. And there the trouble begins.
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Now that CEOs will be held personally accountable for statements they make about their organizations, we can all expect to be held to higher standards of professional ethics. Some professions have formal codes of ethics, but most don't. What ethical principles guide you?
The silhouette of a famous fictional detectiveSome Truths About Lies: Part II
Knowing when someone else is lying doesn't make you a more ethical person, but it sure can be an advantage if you want to stay out of trouble. Here's Part II of a catalog of techniques misleaders use.
An actual red herringSome Truths About Lies: Part IV
Extended interviews provide multiple opportunities for detecting lies by people intent on deception. Here's Part IV of our little collection of lie detection techniques.
A dog wagging her tailMore Things I've Learned Along the Way
Some entries from my personal collection of useful and not-so-useful insights.

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

Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout

Benjamin Franklin portrait by Joseph Siffred DuplessisComing August 5: Wacky Words of Wisdom: Part IV
Words of wisdom are pithy sayings that can be valuable so often that we believe them absolutely. Although these sayings are often valuable, they aren't universally valid. Here's Part IV of a growing collection. Available here and by RSS on August 5.
An investigator from the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations interviews a witnessAnd on August 12: When the Answer Isn't the Point: Part I
When we ask each other questions, the answers aren't always what we seek. Sometimes the behavior of the respondent is what matters. Here are some techniques questioners use when the answer to the question wasn't the point of asking. Available here and by RSS on August 12.

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