Fear of retaliation leads to lack of ethical behavior – Mary T. O’Sullivan

By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL, contributing writer, business leadership

“One in four workers say it’s ‘OK to break the rules’ if needed to get the job done” – Human Resource Director Website

A female manager is asked to get the boss his coffee or take notes. A finance director falsely claims next quarter’s income in the current quarter to inflate sales. The company president pretends he has breasts by holding up two hockey pucks to his chest. A black employee is excluded from the lunch table. A reviewer takes a dislike to an employee and stashes her work at the bottom of his pile. But no one says or does anything about these slights and abuses.

Under reporting of bad behavior in the workplace leaves the impression that nothing is wrong with the company culture. The company brand goes undamaged, only to encourage more unethical actions and general misconduct within the organization, especially if the company is seemingly profitable. Leadership ignores it or even participates in it, making other employees believe it’s okay to behave improperly in the workplace. Employees are hurt, insulted, and demoralized.

When people come to work, they expect to get their jobs done and not be barraged by gossip, bullying, offensive humor, verbal attacks or even forms of workplace violence. Yet inappropriate behavior and lack of professionalism are allowed to exist inside many organizations. A recent survey of over 8500 employees showed that 38% of the respondents observed unethical behavior at work, 79% did not report it. Why?

Among reasons given by many are: “It’s none of my business”, “I thought it was common practice”, “I didn’t think anything would be done about it”, “At the time, I didn’t think it was serious”, “I was afraid it would cause animosity”, “I thought leaders already knew what was going on”, “I didn’t want to appear disloyal”, and “I was afraid I might jeopardize my job”. In fact, according to Workplace Culture Magazine, 56%, over half, of employees fear retaliation as the number one reason workplace misconduct goes unreported.

Unreported or under-reported unethical behavior in the workplace happens as a direct result of a “weak culture”, according to Human Resources Director. The top obstacle to reporting bad behavior was found to be a severe lack of trust within the organization. Employees did not believe their employers would take action or handle the issue so it wouldn’t happen again. Significantly according to the same study, “23% felt it was okay to break the rules if needed to get the job done” and 14% admitted to breaking the company’s Code of Conduct or ethical standards in the last year.

What is the solution? We know by now that leaders need to model the behavior they want to see within the company. They must all “Walk the Talk”. How do they get there? They must first learn and then inculcate the “powerful drivers of principled behavior” as listed below:

  • Belief that the company doesn’t compromise values to achieve business objectives
  • Having a manager whom employees perceive is ethical
  • The presence of performance management and recognition programs that reinforce and incentivize ethical behavior
  • A team environment characterized by trust
  • An environment where colleagues can question actions that don’t align with your company’s values or standards

According to EBN, an employee benefits site, “industries such as healthcare, education and retail see a disproportionate level of workplace [misconduct] incidents, all businesses should make the mental wellbeing and safety of employees a top priority.” However, the study goes on to say that unless fear of retaliation is taken out of the picture, bad behavior will continue.

The message needs to be repeated often. Make a point of emphasizing that no one will be retaliated against for reporting an incident that violates the Code of Conduct. Leaders have to demonstrate that workplace ethics are important, best done in person at a town hall or skip level meeting. Sending out a generic email from the HR department will not make ethical behavior stick. Employees have to know that ethical behavior is not just a box to check or a required training to be completed. It’s part of the brand, and what the company stands for.

“To achieve maximum impact with all safety and wellness initiatives, there has to be buy-in from leadership”. EBN


Read all Mary’s columns here:

Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas.

Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society.

Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University.

Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.

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