One of my clients was placed in a tough spot last week. She’s the CEO of a large nonprofit. A Board member approached her after a meeting to propose a personal interest venture. My client’s dilemma was how to maintain a positive relationship with an esteemed Board member without succumbing to unethical temptations. I advised her to confront the situation directly, which she did.
The key to confronting unethical behavior at work is to act fast. Here are some strategies to keep close to hand.
1. Nip it in the bud
Unethical behavior and conflicts of interest can be like viruses that threaten the organization’s wellbeing. As in the microbial world, these viruses come in many constantly mutating formats. If they are not eliminated or neutralized, even the simplest virus is a mortal threat to the body.
2. Act swiftly
If you detect unethical behavior at work, time is of the essence. You should address the situation immediately. Immediate confrontation is especially critical given that our unethical behavior is likely to escalate over time. Offenders typically start misconduct with small acts. These small acts quickly escalate and get more and more unethical over time.
3. Say ‘No’
Don’t jump around the fence. It’s best to say ‘No’ outright to unethical acts. Each of us has a responsibility and personal set of values to prevent unethical behavior from escalating. Always go back to your personal values. It doesn’t matter how senior you are or how likely you are to get caught or punished. It’s simply not worth compromising your integrity and values.
4. Don’t opt for zero-tolerance
Yes, you read that correctly. Many companies mistakenly assume that there should be a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to unethical behavior. This isn’t necessarily wise. Zero tolerance is often not the best policy. As long as the situation hasn’t entered murky legal waters that require you to report it to HR or authorities, it's best to confront the offender. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Give them the opportunity to respond and correct their behavior. Ethics-based confrontations are often less painful than we anticipate. Research has found that people are likely to overestimate how painful confrontations about ethical behavior will be and how terrible the retaliation will be. Don’t assume the worst.
In many cases, an action or behavior falls in a gray area. As a rule of thumb, you should err on the side of caution. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. Instead of ignoring gray-area actions and behaviors, confront them as soon as possible.
Ethics and trust are closely related. When top executives and leaders set high moral standards, employees are more likely to follow suit. It can be challenging to grapple with unethical behavior. If you do make a mistake or err, it’s best to confront the situation directly, and disclose your wrongdoing as soon as you can. Your honest approach can strengthen relationships; we all make mistakes. And the consequences will likely be worse if you don’t. Embracing the above strategies will prevent you from losing your moral compass.
I care deeply about helping leaders and advancing the human resources profession. I have authored two books, The Art of Executive Coaching and Stress-less Leadership, and maintain a regular blog. I am also a leading contributor for The Society For Human Resources Management, Entrepreneur Magazine, and The Association of Talent Development.
As an active animal advocate, I donate 100% of all book proceeds to animal welfare.
The opinions in this article are my own, and do not reflect those of my publishers or employers.