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Avoiding the Ethical Slippery Slope in Workplace Decisions

Why Some Organizations ‘Kill the Messenger’

Ethical decisions in the workplace require a level of consciousness that directs a person to consider how the consequences of one’s decisions affect others and whether the rights of those affected by one’s actions are being respected or rejected. Ethical decision-making for most is not an innate value but cultivated over time and through practice. As the ancient Greeks knew, knowledge and wisdom gained through learning the ethical lessons in life create the foundation for virtues that are long-lasting.

I recently received an email from a reader who had an ethical dilemma. She had discovered that her employer was cutting corners in its production of a medical device and not doing the proper quality control inspections before shipping its product to doctors and hospitals. She was concerned that a patient might be harmed or even die because the equipment might not function as expected. She told the production manager who told her to keep it to herself and that there never had been a problem before. The manager said it costs too much to inspect every device and production and distribution already was behind schedule. She asked me: What should I do?

I asked her to describe the culture of the organization she worked for. She said that some of the employees who had pointed out issues in production before were treated badly afterward by management. One had claimed to be denied a promotion for going above the head of her supervisor. I quickly realized the company operated under the concept of a ‘kill the messenger’ syndrome. This means it is the person who brings bad news to light that suffers the consequences, especially if it is disclosed to higher-ups in the organization, rather than the one responsible for the unethical practice.

Workplace ethics is built on honesty, open communication, respect, and accepting responsibility for one’s actions. An organization that cultivates these values is more likely to treat their employees fairly than one that doesn’t want to hear about bad news.

What did I tell the reader to do? I suggested she document her observations including what she said and to whom as well as what each individual she contacted had said. This is important to establish a record of the ethical dilemma she faced and how it was handled. She needed to protect her own interests, I explained. I also told her to give a copy of the document to a trusted friend or advisor in case the matter blew up in the company’s face.

The reader was reluctant to take my advice. She was afraid she would lose her job if she told anyone about the shortcuts in the production and inspection process. I explained to her that if she told no one and it could be shown after-the-fact that she knew about it, and the equipment subsequently failed, then she could be blamed for being silent. Moreover, someone would have been harmed when her disclosure of the matter could have prevented it from happening.

I don’t know what the reader eventually did. Her ethical dilemma illustrates two important points about ethical decision-making. First, ethics is easier said than done. The pressures we feel when trying to do the right thing sometimes obscure the facts and the ethical issues fade into the background. Second, once a person decides to go along with wrongdoing, they have taken the first step down the proverbial ethical slippery slope and it becomes difficult to reverse course later on and head for the high ground.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 15, 2014