I have been getting a lot of inquiries lately about what to do regarding unethical behavior in the workplace. While it is difficult to speak about this very broad topic without specific examples, I will try to give a broad, generic answer. First of all, I want to be clear that we are not talking about illegal behavior. What I am referring to in this tip is behavior that would be deemed unethical, not illegal. When you notice unethical behavior in the workplace, I believe your first responsibility is to speak directly to the person committing the offense. You should approach him or her with the attitude Stephen Covey discusses in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. His fifth habit is called, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
One of the biggest problems in relationships is self-righteousness. Once we know what is right and ethical for us, we believe we have THE answer about what is right and ethical for everyone. The area of ethical behavior is fluid and ever changing. While there are some absolutes such as it is unethical for a therapist to engage in sexual activity with his or her client, other ethical considerations are open for debate. So, approach the person you are having a problem with and discuss the situation in the spirit of trying to understand where that person is coming from. If this does not solve the issue, then you can tell the person that you intend to discuss the situation further with that person’s supervisor and invite him or her to that meeting.
Finally, there is one more area to consider. If you belong to a group that has ethical guidelines about what to do when another member of the group violates the ethical code, then you may have to report that person to their ethical body. Even if you are not a member honor-bound to report, you can take it upon yourself to report a colleague’s unethical behavior if they are in a field where their behavior is regulated.
From a choice theory perspective, you can’t change another person’s behavior. You can only provide them with information. It’s possible the person didn’t know he or she was being unethical. It’s possible you have a different interpretation of what unethical means in this particular situation. It’s possible that the behavior is supported by management. It’s possible you will do all that is available to you to report the offense and nothing will happen. You have to ask yourself what kind of person do you want to be in that situation.
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