Ethical Issues in Disclosing Past Sexual Harassment of a Fellow Employee
Last week I discussed with my students the prevalence of lying on a resume and discussed steps employers can take to better identify such falsehoods. I warned them about their ethical responsibilities in that regard. Lying on resumes has become all too common and cheat prospective employers out of important information in hiring decisions.
According to research conducted by The Society of Human Resource Managers, over 53% of individuals lie about their resume in some way. I recently read an interesting piece about the perils of lying on your resume. The question posed is what to do if you lie on a resume and subsequently are called in for an interview and asked to fill out an official job application. When you complete the application you are legally affirming your dates of employment and your employment history. The company may verify those dates with your previous employer.
Of course, you shouldn’t lie on your resume in the first place. Even after you've been hired, lying on a job application is grounds for termination at any point in the future - even years later. It is wrong to do for many reasons not the least of which is you have misled all those who read your resume and make decisions whether to call you in for an interview. Trust is an essential element of ethical behavior and the cornerstone of workplace ethics.
Perhaps the more interesting question is what to do when you fill out that application. You can take your chances that the prospective employer won’t check on a false position or made-up employer. Doing nothing is always an option but it perpetuates the error in judgment. There is a saying in ethics that an error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.
Another option is to fill out the application correctly and hope that the employer doesn’t catch the “mistake.” You’d better be prepared to explain it, however, in case it is caught and brought up in the interview. Always think about the consequences of your actions before making a decision.
In this case the best way to handle the situation is to admit to the mistake, say that you realize it was wrong, and then promise not to do anything like it on the job. You may not get the position but you will gain the respect of the prospective employer and start to build a stronger foundation of ethical conduct.
In the second case, an employee, who I’ll call Frank, discovers that a newly-hired employee lied on his resume in order to gain employment. Frank knows that this employee omitted a job he was fired from for sexual harassment/hostile work environment two months prior to receiving his current position. He knows it because a friend of Frank’s worked with the newly-hired employee and told Frank about the incident. Does Frank have an obligation to report the employee to management?
There is a difference between a legal obligation and an ethical obligation. Legally, Frank does not have to report what he has discovered. The concept of ethical legalism holds that being ethical is the same as following the law. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
Ethical dilemmas occur in the workplace from time to time where an individual has no legal obligation to report but may be moved to report an unethical action. Financial fraud comes to mind. While there is no legal requirement to report, it is the ethical step to take because others are harmed by the fraud such as shareholders and creditors. In knowing financial fraud exists a person is empowered to use that information to avoid harm to others. Yes, there may be workplace consequences for “whistle-blowing.” However, an ethical person is motivated out of a sense that it is the right thing to do or, as I have blogged about before, because of a conscience guided by a strong moral compass.
Going back to Frank’s ethical dilemma, as mentioned above, even after someone has been hired, lying on a job application is grounds for termination at any point in the future - even years later. Frank may know this and will become an accomplice to the act if he remains silent. In some companies there is an anonymous reporting system whereby a concerned employee can report possible wrong doing and the act will be investigated. Frank may be reluctant to go down this road for fear that any investigation will come back to him especially if he works closely with the offending employee.
Ethical behavior comes from the intent to do the right thing. Oftentimes a person knows the right thing to do but doesn’t do it out of fear of reprisal or being viewed as disloyal. I would advise Frank to consider how he would feel if he remains silent and the employee commits an act of sexual harassment in his workplace. Frank might have prevented it in the first place by informing the company of the lie. There is an analogy here with the Penn State University incident where those in the know stayed silent while Jerry Sandusky sexually molested young children and abused his position of influence both within and outside Penn State.
No one ever said ethics is easy. In fact, it is easier said than done. But, lying on one’s resume is a basic ethical responsibility. It’s not complicated. It’s all about treating others the way you want to be treated – the Golden Rule.
Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 11, 2013