You 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:
- “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
Frank 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.