Ethics and Work

Have you been asked to take part in unethical activity at work or your volunteer activities? Recently a member on the CIC Member’s Forum posted their experience with unethical behaviour at their work. The member was asked to change a performance review after it had been delivered (and told not to tell the employee). While maybe not illegal, it is certainly unfair, if not unethical.

In fact I bet that most people would say “never” if asked if they would do anything illegal or unethical. If true, then why do so many people do things like steal from work, cheat on their taxes, or cheat on their spouse?

You could list a host of reasons, but probably the underlying reason for all unethical or illegal decisions is that people think that they will not get caught.

I worked for a well-known volunteer group and was called by an individual asking a very leading question about finances. The question clearly indicated that they wanted me to allow an illegal transaction to flow through our group’s books.

  • My thoughts: immediately I thought “this is not right”. I knew the request was illegal, and I knew it would put me personally at risk of legal action and would, when discovered, have a very negative impact on our organization.
  • The senior person who wanted the action: they were “in the moment” and were trying to fix a problem (that they in fact caused)…in short, they panicked and went off their pretty little heads.
  • The junior person who made the phone call: was not thinking at all! That person had no idea that what was being asked was wrong, and was potentially getting involved with an illegal activity without even knowing.

What were the red flags?

  • The request was against the rules (against policy and the law)
  • The request was unexpected and somewhat panicked (no advanced thought was put into it)
  • The request was made through a third person (distance between the person making the request and the one executing it)

The good news is that the whole organization was not complicit in this request, and when the more senior people in the organization found out they were furious. So I was supported and it all worked out OK, though it does not always work out so well for people who say “no”.

How can you prepare for these situations?

  • Know your job and the rules that apply so you can speak with authority.
  • Know your business and what is normal for the industry.
  • Ask questions when things seems out-of-sorts.
  • Make sure you are right: obtain advice from a lawyer, or speak to someone at a Provincial or Federal Labour Board.

What happens when the pressure is really put on? If you are like me, you need your job, and unethical people will use this as a pressure point, or, in a slightly different scenario, they may hint about some perk or pay rise for you down the road. Without some preparation, it may end up as a rotten choice for you.

Remember, if your life is a bus, then you are the driver and it is always the driver that gets the ticket! Imagine how you would justify your actions if you did something unethical. List the responses, and then say them out loud. Then say them out load again, but put the words “your Honour” after each statement and see how that feels. Then make a decision.

Unethical decisions say a lot about your bosses, the culture of your organization, the pressures of the world, and so on. But mostly an unethical act says a lot about you and the type of person you are. Be the person you want to be!

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