Something Sketchy Is Happening at Work, But You Need the Cash. What Should You Do?

mb-2014-12-ss1You see a co-worker slipping a piece of merchandise into her purse, but you don’t say anything. Your boss asks you to add a number to an earnings report, and you know the number is wrong, but you don’t ask questions.

Most people can’t afford to lose their jobs, and speaking up about wrongdoing could mean getting fired. Even if you don’t get fired, your co-workers and bosses can go out of their way to make you miserable.

How can you bring workplace misdeeds to light without risking your job? There’s not always an easy answer. Even if you want to take the moral high road and report what’s happening at work, you have people at home who depend on your salary. Your heroism might land you on the front page of the newspaper, but it won’t pay for your groceries. You’ll have to balance the potential fallout from staying silent with what you could lose from speaking out.

Something’s Not Right

People who train for a career in criminal justice often study the story of Frank Serpico. Serpico, famously portrayed on film by Al Pacino, was the New York City police officer who helped expose bribery and corruption in the NYPD. When his superiors didn’t listen to him, he told his story to The New York Times. Today, the NYPD is a much cleaner organization, and they owe it to Serpico’s profound courage.

Sometimes a boss or co-worker will ask you to do something that feels wrong, but you’re not sure whether you’re overreacting. In those cases, talk to a trusted mentor within your company, or confide in someone that you trust (outside of work) about the issue. However, when one of these statements accompanies the sketchy action or request, there’s a good chance that something’s not right:

  • mb-2014-12-ss2“Don’t tell anyone about this.”
  • “Don’t put anything about this in writing.”
  • “This is just a one-time thing.”
  • “Everyone else does it.”

Am I the Only One Who Notices?

In many cases, your co-workers also notice that something’s wrong, but there’s just no incentive for them to speak up. Like you, they’re probably undecided about whether they can afford to tell the truth. When you know something is wrong, and you suspect that your boss or co-worker also knows, start by asking your boss to repeat what he or she asked you to do. Your boss might have second thoughts and either say, “Never mind” or “Let’s do it another way.”

Then, if you’re asked to do something wrong again, ask non-confrontational questions like, “Does the company have a policy we should follow?” or “How is this usually handled?” In most cases, when you pretend not to understand, it gives the boss another chance to say, “Never mind.” If your boss persists, use this sentence formula recommended by Mary Gentile, a researcher at Babson College and author of “Giving Voice to Values:” “I know we’re trying to accomplish ‘X,’ but I think ‘Y’ would be more effective than ‘Z.’”

  • “X” is the underlying concern, such as raising profits or reducing expenses, that’s motivating the shady actions.
  • “Y” is a more appropriate choice.
  • “Z” is the sketchy thing that you don’t want to do.

When You Have to Speak Up

mb-2014-12-ss3Frank Serpico paid a high price for telling the truth. After he talked to The New York Times, Frank Serpico was shot in the head during a drug raid. As he lay dying, none of his fellow officers called for assistance; fortunately, an alert civilian saved his life. In Serpico’s case, the NYPD’s corruption was too big to ignore, and he had to speak out.

If you can’t persuade your boss or co-worker to do the right thing, weigh the cost of keeping silent against the cost of telling the truth. Telling the truth could ease your conscience, but it could come with painful consequences. You could find yourself passed over for promotions or ostracized at work, and you might have to look for another job.

Your best choice might be to avoid the shady action, keep quiet until you find a new job, and then tell company officials when you’re on your way out. You’ll have to decide, based on both the scope of the problem and the likely outcome of telling the truth, whether your paycheck is worth it.

11 thoughts on “Something Sketchy Is Happening at Work, But You Need the Cash. What Should You Do?”

  1. This goes to the core of (good) character. I was raised to always tell the truth and integrity was important. In school, we had an honor code. Lying, cheating, or stealing are never allowed, and you could not tolerate other’s dishonesty either. In a workplace, it starts with the trivial of taking a pen, cheating on your hours or your expense report. It slowly goes to something much more serious. No one should tolerate this behavior.

  2. I would speak out and if it doesn’t work I would probably quit. I would’nt want to be associated with such behaviors and putting your head in the sand makes you an accomplice.

    It’s important for me to be honest and to work with honest people.

    If you want to see live what it looks like when even a very small sketchy thing is hidden look at the story of many stocks out there… a 4 cents “mistake” has destroyed and entire company and made me lose 40% of my invested capital in a single day recently…

    Dishonesty doesn’t pay

    Just my two cents

  3. I’m really glad I’ve never been in this position before. My office actually has an anonymous whistle blower tip line we can use if we ever do observe anything unethical or illegal going on, which seems like a good idea to me. Always good to give people an easy way to report wrongdoing.

  4. Interesting rumination!

    I doubt if I’d risk ruining my life by whistle-blowing, having seen that happen to more than one person. However, I’d surely find another job if something shady was going on.

    Role model: my father, a merchant mariner. He was an oil tanker captain, one of the best in his trade — he had a license to sail any tonnage on any ocean. When we came back from Arabia, where we’d lived for a decade, he took a job sailing out of the San Francisco area for Standard Oil. I don’t know what he saw down on the docks, but whatever it was, it caused him to walk off the job. He flat out quit: got off the boat one day and said he wasn’t going back.

    Because of his overall excellence, he had a job with Union Oil within about ten days. But it was a big risk.

    I never learned what he saw. I don’t think even my mother knew. Whatever it was, it must have been mighty crooked. Maybe endangered lives.

    Message to the kid: If you don’t like what you see on the job, move on. But keep your mouth shut.

  5. If it’s good to not let anyone knows about the sketchy happening then let it be but if it’s bad then you should do the right thing. It’s your choice to do what’s right and wrong. Thanks for sharing this

  6. That’s a tough one to decide. My advice is really always go for your guts. When you feel it’s the right thing to do, then do it. But, this should have been pondered well so that no/less regrets will occur later on. However, most of the time we just have to choose the option which is less evil/the good and causes less damages. Take a stand and make a choice.

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