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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:

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

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When, in the presence of others, someone asks you "a simple yes or no" question, beware. Chances are that you're confronting a trap. Here's Part II of a set of suggestions for dealing with the yes-or-no trap. Available here and by RSS on September 2.
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When members of teams or groups hold back their efforts toward achieving group goals, schedule and budget problems can arise, along with frustration and destructive intra-group conflict. What causes this behavior? Available here and by RSS on September 9.

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