Why Unethical Behavior Goes Unchecked

In following my own advice from my May 2013 blog, I’ve begun to read more on the topic of business ethics and the issues that organizations face in addressing various behaviors. I was surprised to read about a recent survey on ethics in Canadian organizations where 48 percent of those who observed misconduct did not report it. Although we don’t know the definition of misconduct used in the study, and even if it includes only the most egregious actions occurring within the organizations, the fact that employees do not feel compelled to report these activities is troubling.

I’m interested in why people don’t report to their companies if they observe unethical, illegal, or just wrong behavior. Most large companies provide training on their Code of Conduct, ethics, legal issues, and harassment. Is it that it takes effort and a bit of risk in order to report someone else’s wrongdoing? That appears to be case. In the same survey mentioned above, they found that 69 percent of respondents thought the company would not investigate the issue properly if it was reported and 23 percent feared a negative consequence, including retaliation. It appears that more training on the topic of reporting suspected wrongdoing is needed as well as efforts within companies to honor their commitments to address any report of suspected wrongdoing and keep the employee safe from harm.

Who is in a position to help companies promote more reporting of misconduct? Once again, I think the middle manager is the key to the solution. Middle managers are well positioned to see what happens with those who report to them as well as what happens with their own senior managers. Their perspective within the organization cannot be matched. Additionally, the middle manager often has sufficient information about the company and its policies to know when the issue is bad behavior or an honest mistake versus unethical or illegal actions. Encouraging employees to report directly to their manager (when the issue does not include their manager) may help to weed out the misunderstandings from the misconduct and do so at a level that feels safer to the employee.

Another option is to remind employees of the option of anonymous reporting within the organization. Most healthcare organizations as well as publicly traded companies have reporting hotlines. We ought to encourage employees to use them. And of course, we need to wipe out retaliation, not only because in many instances it is against the law, but also because it’s the right thing to do.

As evidenced by another survey, companies that experience far less retaliation against whistle-blowers were the ones with Codes of Conduct, training on such standards, a reporting hotline, and someone employees could go to with questions or concerns.

What else can companies do to increase the reporting of misconduct? Here are some suggestions:

  • Teach your employees that it’s okay to report and remind them of the anonymous hotline
  • Ask middle managers to address small infractions as they arise to prevent larger issues
  • Remind middle and senior managers that a report of misconduct is not an act of disloyalty, nor a questioning of their abilities.

And, by far, the most important action you can take is to listen to the complainers within your organization.  It is not always easy, but be patient with these folks, as they may have valid concerns and often have valuable insights about what is occurring. True whistle-blowers are very loyal to the goals of the organization, which is why they do report. Your complainer may provide you with just what you need to know to correct an error before it becomes far worse.

How does your organization address business ethics and reporting of suspected wrong doing? Feel free to share your thoughts as well as other topics for a future ethical discussion.

Camille Cohen is the Compliance Officer with 3M Health Information Systems.

One response to “Why Unethical Behavior Goes Unchecked

  1. Pingback: Can an organization’s culture help to shape decisions? | 3M Health Information Systems

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