But I Can’t Rat Out My Buddy – Grappling with the Challenge of Workplace Ethics

Workplace ethics play a significant role in decision-making. Prepare yourself to make ethical decisions when the pressure’s on and the stakes are high.

Two adults working together

Your best friend at work tells you he’s been “padding” his expense report. It’s just an extra $50 a paycheck, so no big deal. Besides, the company owes him given all the times he worked late to finish his monthly reports after a week of traveling for company business.

You say nothing. You would never violate a friendship. Besides, you tell yourself, he’ll stop eventually. And it’s only $50 a paycheck. (Sound like a workplace ethics issue to you?)

Flash forward two years. You and your buddy have both been promoted to management positions. You are sitting at your desk one day when you hear some noise.

You look up to see your buddy being escorted out of the office by human resources. Turns out he’d continued padding his expense reports all this time – and with the greater authority of his new management position, he’d figured out how to game the expense reporting system to the tune of over a thousand dollars a month based on his extensive work-related travel.

I witnessed this situation play out in one of my own workplaces. The outcome was a bit traumatic for everyone for various reasons. We thought we “knew” him. But he was such “a nice guy.” How would we explain the sudden departure of someone beloved by his clients? How did we all miss this? Why would he risk damaging the reputation of not only the company, but our individual professional reputations as well?

Tough questions, to be sure.  Looking back on the early warning signs, the answer seems clear. His best buddy should have spoken up early on, right?

Yet, while we all pride ourselves on being honest and ethical, the pull of personal loyalty to workplace friends combined with the conflicting messages we often receive related to our company’s formal – and informal – code of ethics, means that making ethical decisions in the moment are often much more complex than we realize.

And, pressures related to workplace ethics only become more challenging as we advance in our careers.

The privilege that can come with higher level job titles can blind us to the potential harm facing lower level employees, and even our customers – while the definition of being a “good team player” can become increasingly focused on pleasing ever-demanding clients and shareholders who expect a maximum return on their investment.

So, where can we begin? Here are some helpful guidelines for determining your individual ethical responsibility (from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics):

  1. Severity of harm – How serious is the potential harm?
  2. Certainty of harm – Is the harm certain or just possible?
  3. Personal degree of involvement – Have I caused the harm? Am I the only one who can act?
  4. Cost of addressing the harm – What risk will I take to address the harm?
  5. Certainty of the solution – How certain am I that my action will solve the problem?

Curious to learn more? Register for upcoming Link & Learns, and view past sessions.

About the Author
Angie Pastorek, Ph.D., is a faculty member at the KU Edwards Campus. She teaches and manages two graduate programs in workplace communication, including the four-course certificate in professional workplace communication and a full master’s degree in organizational communication. Pastorek also offers workshops for local business, government and nonprofit organizations through the Knowledge Now program. If you are interested in any of these programming options, you may contact her at apastorek@ku.edu.

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