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How to Handle Unethical Office Practices

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Today’s employees face a daily gauntlet of ethical choices, such as what to do with the knowledge that a co-worker routinely pads an expense report or a colleague looks at pornography on a work computer. Employees and organizations both could suffer if ethical issues are not properly addressed. Workers could wind up feeling confused and unsure, while businesses risk loss of revenue and public embarrassment if thought of as soft on ethics. Still, for some employees, deciding how to solve an ethical dilemma can prove difficult.

Remaining Silent

According to the “Inside the Mind of a Whistleblower” supplement to the 2011 Ethics Resource Center’s National Business Ethics Survey, 65 percent of employees who witness ethical violations in the workplace actually report them. At first glance, this is a win. Not so, says Susan Meisinger, the former president of the Society for Human Resources. She expresses concern that one in three employees do not come forward to report violations. This could be due to uncertainty, fear of retaliation or an unwillingness to become involved. Regardless of the cause, it is ultimately the employee’s decision whether to act on bringing the issue forward.

Coming Forward

Employees who report observed wrongdoing often hqf3 several choices for voicing their ethical concern. Some companies -- such as Dell, Verizon Wireless, JP Morgan Chase and others – explicitly expect their employees to report unethical practices. To encourage employees to be candid and report violations, many companies have implemented various resources, such as 24-hour ethics hotlines, ombudsmen and online reporting tools. Employees should check with their human resources representative to see what means are available to express ethical concerns.

Duty to Report

In some organizations, there is a special consideration related to workplace ethics issues. For example, some public safety, medical and legal occupations are required by law to report ethical and legal violations. If these issues are not reported, penalties of varying severity can result. In virtually every jurisdiction, for instance, an attorney who is aware of improper ethical acts has a legal duty to report the violation. Similarly, many public sector employees who become aware of fraud, waste or abuse are expected to speak up. Employees in these occupations are generally made aware of their duty to report wrongdoing, as well as ethics resources, upon being hired.

Government Agencies

For matters specific to his company's operations, an employee’s first point of contact will be within the company, but if action is not taken, outside agencies can help. Ethical issues relating to sexual harassment and discrimination can be directed to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. For issues relating to wages and hours, contact the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division for additional information.