How to stop unethical behaviour in the workplace

Bad things happen
Worse things than this can happen when many people do the wrong thing

Every now and then the media comes out with a surprising story of corruption and mismanagement that prompts me to wonder at the state of some organisations. What really interests me is how these events actually occur, for I would imagine that it is fairly difficult to single-handedly perpetrate these actions without layers upon layers of unethical behaviour.

This article about a corrupt IT Manager states that:

He used his position at SWSI TAFE to register his front company as a pre-qualified supplier on the Department of Education’s finance system, and then had members of his staff issue work orders to the business that he would subsequently approve himself.

Then there was this article about a number of procurement issues at a state department, which reads:

 …one officer, who was only authorised to spend up to $100,000 and instead authorised expenditure worth more than $40 million, has since left the department.

“In this instance an officer was able to purchase beyond [their] authorised limits and clearly was incompetent in that role.”

Both of these instances are interesting in that there is very little chance that they could have been carried out within a substantial organisation by a single person. In any medium to large organisation, the specialist nature of various roles and the need to work within teams means that it is pretty hard for a single person to undertake corrupt behaviour without somebody else at least having a chance to notice it.

Combinations of actions from various people cause bad things to happen

Unethical or corrupt behaviour doesn’t happen in isolation. Sure, an individual starts it, but then to be able to continuously get away with it requires other people to either be in on the act or be turning a blind eye to it.

This led me to think about how these sorts of events can be stopped and why they often aren’t.

How to stop unethical behaviour in the workplace, by stopping being a part of the problem

As a leader, you have a responsibility to safeguard your team and the organisation you work in against these sorts of issues.

You don’t EVER have ultimate control over the actions of others, even if they are in your team. There is nothing to stop one of your team murdering a colleague unexpectedly. That’s not necessarily your fault…unless there were signs that were ignored.

In your role, you can’t control:

  • What your boss tells you to do: if your boss tells you to bend the rules or to do something unethical, there is nothing you can do about that. Whether you act in accordance with these requests is another matter
  • What others decide to do with what you’ve told them: If you’ve asked somebody to do something and they have not followed the directive or done something completely different, that’s largely out of your control too. After all, they aren’t a puppet where you get to pull the strings.

But there are things that you *can* and should take control of:

  • What you tell others: you need to tell your team what they should be doing, and what they shouldn’t. You have complete control of what comes out of your mouth, so make sure you’re saying the right things so that people know where you stand.
  • How you act: ever heard the statement “Do as I say, not as I do” from a leader? Unfortunately I have, and what a piece of bullsh*t that is. If you are going to act in a certain way, then people around you will take that lead, even if you say otherwise. Make sure your words match your actions, otherwise people will follow your lead and do the wrong thing.
  • Pushing back on people: as a leader, it is your responsibility to push back on people when they try to get you to do something unethical, nonsensical or impractical. Sometimes it’s not easy, but you just might be the last bastion of resistance against something really bad going down in your organisation.
  • Your personal situation: your own financial position and relationships *outside* of your work are clearly your responsibility and they can be of tremendous benefit to how you behave inside the workplace. That flash car that you’re trying to maintain could just be the difference between turning a blind eye to unethical behaviour or saying “I quit”. Basically, you need to get yourself into a position where you don’t have to be party to unethical or corrupt behaviour. This includes keeping your skills and qualifications up, your personal finances healthy and your lifestyle in check. So when something bad is about to go down, you can say “I’m not going to be part of this”.

It starts with the small issues

You might be thinking that these issues don’t come along very often. It isn’t every day (hopefully) that you are coerced by the mafia into hiring somebody or robbing a bank to fund your project. These situations happen on a smaller scale too:

  • Giving a favourable review to a product vendor because someone knows the person who owns the company
  • Falsifying the status of a project to avoid calling attention to any issues (in the short term)

It can be a slippery slope.

Really bad things happen in organisations when many people’s actions combine to result in a poor outcome. Not everybody involved is likely to be corrupt, but you can be sure that there are many instances where people do things they know are wrong because they feel like they have no other option.

Give yourself options and take control of the things that you can. What you tell others, how you act, when you push back and how you live – that’s all up to you.

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