For the most part those offenses go unnoticed or unremarked due to longstanding conventions and the unwritten rules of the workplace. The employee down the hall takes a few office supplies home. Another employee spends hours a day on personal tasks. Another pads his expense report. Happens all the time.
Do you speak up when a rule is broken? Possibly you do, but probably you don't; of course it depends on the type of violation. In my experience most people do not, including me.
But what if the stakes are a lot higher?
Consider this: A company solicits bids for a major contract. The head of engineering is responsible for evaluating proposals and selecting the winning bid. Your company decides to bid, so you put together a comprehensive, competitive proposal.
Another bid -- one with a much higher price tag -- is chosen. You're crushed.
A few days later you learn the head of engineering received a kickback from the winning bidder. Not a t-shirt or a free lunch or a fishing trip. Dollars. Thousands of dollars. You don't just suspect he was paid to deliver the project; you have proof he was paid to deliver the project, and that this isn't the first time.
What would you do?
Don't answer yet. Like most real-world business decisions, there are different aspects to consider. Your firm does ongoing business with the company; in fact, their contracts amount to 25% of your annual revenue. Plus the head of engineering is very close to his CEO. Even though the facts are on your side blowing the whistle may mean nothing changes -- except you might lose a major customer.
And don't say, "That's okay, we'll just find other customers." You may decide that's your only option. On the other hand, if finding other customers was that easy you'd already be finding them. Big customers are incredibly hard to come by. Never mind the impact on you and your company; what about the potential impact on your employees if revenue suddenly drops?
Walking away or keeping quiet leads to fairly predictable outcomes. Speaking up makes the outcome much harder to predict.
Balancing your desire to do the right thing with the future of your company, your family, and your employees is difficult. That's what makes ethical dilemmas so tough; in this case other people -- people you feel a significant responsibility towards -- are also involved. Your ethics aren't the only factor. The future of your company and your employees could be at stake.
The easy answer is of course that right is right, rules are rules, and ethical behavior is ethical behavior. In the real world it's not always that simple. We all wish it was... but the reality is, it's not.
What would you do?
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