Should I Report Ethical Misconduct At Work?

This week, The Simple Dollar attempts to address challenging questions in personal finance by looking at both sides of the story and figuring out some of the factors you need to look at to make a decision.

It happens to most of us at some time or another. We spot someone at work doing something that we perceive as being seriously unethical, beyond the typical workplace behavior and antics. The question is, do we keep this information to ourselves, or do we report it to the appropriate people?

It’s not the obvious cut-and-dried answer that many of us might think that it is, because there are a lot of issues at work here beyond just the misconduct. Let’s look at both sides of the coin.

Report It!

If you see a serious ethical violation, it is your duty to report it to your supervisor. If it were merely something having to do with that individual alone, it might not be worth reporting, but ethical misconduct in the workplace reflects on the business as a whole. It can very quickly create workplace dissension and, in some cases, create a negative impression with customers and stakeholders.

The best way to handle it is by being direct and brief. Tell your supervisor simply and directly what is going on, and leave it at that. Don’t make a big drama out of it, and absolutely do not gossip about it in any way. Report it to your supervisor so that he/she’s aware of what’s going on and drop it unless something more is requested of you.

Remember, this is not about interpersonal relationships. It’s about the people who rely on each other in the workplace to maintain a level of professionalism and ethical conduct. If you can’t rely on that, the integrity of your entire workplace rapidly goes down the tubes.

Don’t Report It!

First of all, if you happen to see an ethical violation, there’s a good chance that it is none of your business anyway. If it actually is something that affects you, you can follow up on it by just verifying what’s going on, but if it doesn’t involve you, it’s really none of your business.

Second, reporting something that you oversee could reflect more on you than on the person or event you’re reporting. This is the tattling effect, and it quite often bites the tattler as hard or harder than the person doing the misdeed.

Also, you may have misinterpreted what you’ve seen. You just saw Dave from accounting carting off two boxes of printer paper to his car? It’s quite possible he’s just running that paper to the office across town, and by reporting it, all that happens is that you look like a tattling fool.

Together, these add up to one clear thing: don’t spend your time reporting things you see others doing. Focus on being the best you can be at the things you’re responsible for and make sure that your bases are covered. Ethical slips of others are for that person and their supervisor to work out, not you as a third party.

My Take

For most potential ethical violations I’ve seen, the benefit of correction is simply not worth the cost of reporting it. If I witnessed someone from another department carting off a bunch of printer paper and loading it into his car, I’d shrug my shoulders and ignore it. If that person is thieving paper for personal use, they’re going to get caught by other means soon anyway – and if there’s an ethical reason for it, I look like an idiot for reporting it.

The exception to this is clear misconduct that can cause a serious detrimental effect to the company as a whole. If I were to witness someone changing numbers on an SEC filing, for example, that would be well worth reporting.

If you’re going to report an ethical problem at work, ask yourself whether this situation is really detrimental to the entire organization if the worst case scenario you envision is true. Dave from accounting stealing some printing paper? That’s not going to be a big deal, even if it’s flagrantly unethical. Joe editing SEC filings? That could bring down major parts of the company and is worth mentioning to someone.

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