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Dealing with Unethical Behavior

Updated: Sep 16


I’m sure you’ve never worked anywhere where there is unethical behavior, right….?

Yep, didn’t think so.

So how do YOU deal with colleagues or those in positions of authority are acting unethically? Do you know where to draw the line?   Have you ever had to make a decision about your own role based on unethical actions of others?

As an HR practitioner, those in our profession (and those over them, including executives) have particular reason to worry, as there are PERSONAL liability issues at stake as well.

“HR practitioners…and other decisionmakers are being held personally liable for their actions under several employment laws…Some of the cases involved six-figure judgments, and almost all of them have taken years to wind their way through the court system…The reality is that even if you ultimately are not found liable, you could spend several years – and thousands of dollars – defending yourself.” (source)

So – is it worth it as an HR professional or manager to sidestep ethical and/or legal business practices in order to get what you want? What if you’re an employee and witnessing things that just don’t seem right?

In this economy, it can be scary to speak up.  I know I’ve had a workplace situation in my own past where retaliation by an executive by my own whistleblowing made life very very tough for me.  (Retaliation is, in essence, punishing the person who spoke up and called out the unethical and/or illegal behavior).  And, especially in the public sector, there is little recourse for you if your ethics team is unresponsive, unless you want to hire an attorney or go to the press.  And as we all know, when you’re looking for a way out of that unethical employer, most of us don’t want to be ‘googled’ and have “lawsuit” next to our name.  An unfortunate fact of life too many have had to deal with.

What’s adds to it?  Only 6% of executives stated integrity or ethics as the single most valued quality at their organization – 26% of executives said an “ability to bring in the numbers,”  according to a survey of about 4,500 executives worldwide by Development Dimensions International, a global human-resources consulting firm. (source)

So, is it OK to quit over something that you can’t quite put your finger on – or something that might not directly impact YOUR job?  Who’s to blame?

In The Antidote for Toxic Corporate CultureDana Theus writes, “When toxic cultures bubble from the bottom up, it’s because leadership allows it to happen; but truly healthy cultures can only flow from the top down.”

If what’s happening seems so embedded in the culture, or comes from the top down, as stated above, ask yourself – as you would with any other relationship – am I willing to live with it or not?  If it’s something that, after voicing your concerns, that it’s obvious you don’t have the influence to change, it’s time to think about your own future.

Talk to a mentor or trusted ally and get their suggestions.  Figure out what’s most important to YOU.  Do you want to be associated with people who behave in a way that is in stark contrast to your own values and morals?  (I hear my mother's voice in my head from childhood reminding me, “People will judge you based on who you spend your time with.”)  Remember, most of us spend at least 1/3 of our life at our job – often more than with our loved ones!


I’m not trying to say you should quit every job where people aren’t perfect.  We all know when something crosses the line in our professional or personal lives – when that little voice goes, tsk tsk, that ain’t right.  We all have the choice to do what is right, versus sit back and, with inaction, be a party to the unethical behavior.  As human beings, we’re faced with that frequently – get involved, or stay quiet.  Say something, or do nothing.


Yet I found there was something really interesting going on.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that almost 2 million workers quit voluntarily in May 2011 – the highest monthly figure since November 2008.  In addition, turnover among “high performers” is increasing, with PwC anticipating a doubling from 4.3% in 2007 to an anticipated 8.7%, by 2013.  (source).

Greg Smith’s departure from Goldman Sachs caused quite a stir when he openly explained his reasons for departing. As he said, “I knew it was time to leave when I realized I could no longer look students in the eye and tell them what a great place this was to work.”

And it’s getting louder at our northerly neighbor as well.  Canada.com reports that unethical requests are the number one reason to quit a job. Workers over 50 ranked ethics as the main reason, while workers in Gen X & Y ranked fair pay and opportunities for growth as prime motivators – but all listed it in their top 3. “Part of it is just a shifting of priorities over your life cycle,” says business leader Jeff Aplin. “The boomers…focus now is on leaving an ethical legacy.”

Instead of talking about best practices and benchmarks in ethics, researcher Ronald Berenbeim, ethics programs should emanate from a company’s internal discussions, history and leadership.  If you’re part of this discussion, you can be part of the evolution towards something positive.  As Smith said, “get the culture right again, so people want to work here for the right reasons.”

If not, all I can say is this:  follow your gut.  Ultimately, your decisions are about no one else but YOU.  As I counseled someone recently, I suggested he think of it like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – he was first, his family was second, and his job was third.  Rather than living for the company, he needed to first live for himself, and make decisions based in that order.  It’s not selfish, it’s healthy.

I’ve seen a lot in my own history.  

  • I remember once hearing an executive saying in a meeting that not only were we going to crush the competition, we’d "beat the crap out of them with a baseball bat after they were laying there bleeding on the ground."  

  • I remember once calling out a rampant lack of confidentiality in compensation and nothing being done.  

  • I remember an executive disregarding fraudulent immigration paperwork on a consistent basis in order to keep enough staff on board (because they knew the only staff they could hire at minimum wage were folks who were too scared to speak up).  

  • I remember a famous music company owner rubbing my belly in front of another executive and trying to kiss me on the cheek while I clocked in.  

  • I remember a manager fudging the numbers in order to hire more people.  

  • I remember watching an executive stoned out of their mind on prescription pills walking through the facility, making no sense.  

  • I remember an executive showing up drunk to meetings and having that be brushed off by others as par for the course.

And so I leave you with this:  jobs are just another form of relationship.  


Is your job the abusive boyfriend that you keep coming back for the 10% that is seemingly wonderful while you feel terrible the other 90% of the time?  Or is it a trusted friend – or better yet, a wonderful partner?  Ask yourself this when you’re interviewing.  Ask this of yourself in your current job regularly.  And don’t be afraid to live your values, your ethics, your beliefs.


“The things that will destroy us are: politics without principle; pleasure without conscience; wealth without work; knowledge without character; business without morality; science without humanity; and worship without sacrifice.” ~ Mohandas K. Gandhi

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