Whistle Stop!

Think | Act

One in a series of Leadership Articles to cause you to think and perhaps to act. Read other articles.

Leadership is challenging enough without having to deal with discovering that your employees, employer or work environment has become tainted with unscrupulous behaviors, shady decisions or, in extreme cases illegal acts. Discovering any of these situations can be a difficult revelation but often dealing with the backlash once you “blow the whistle” can be devastating. In fact, recently The Economist published a list of countries ranked according to their propensity for bribes and cronyism.

Having been through this career changing event on at least a few occasions, your humble author knows some of the pitfalls and steps to take to minimize the potential corporate reaction. Following the next few steps will help you address the problem and put some structure to your approach.

Whistle your own tune

The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.

Albert Einstein

The first step to avoiding situations for any company is to have a strong code of ethics as a beginning point for all of your employees. Additionally, for companies dealing with international clients, you might want to ensure your foreign dealings are completed according to a known set of standards. Many business cultures outside of North America have different business practices which may, or may not, be acceptable to your business. Many companies must also be bound by standards and rules established by the country they are registered in. In some instance companies choose not to do business in certain countries where corruption and bribery are expected.

In any event, it is the responsibility of your leadership team to ensure that all business practices in your company are within the standards that apply. Whether these are self imposed or expected by a jurisdiction within which you operate. Further, it is the responsibility of your company to ensure these are communicated formally and kept current.

“…the facts, just the facts”

If in the event that you think you have stumbled across some behavior, action or circumstance that smells fishy, the first thing you need to do is remain objective. Collecting factual material that independently corroborates your suspicion is needed. Do not react to rumor or speculation, complex issues usually draw these like lighting rods. If you believe the matter is serious, and likely real, then it is in your best interest to track down the evidence.

If you can speak to the characters at the center of the controversy you should attempt to resolve the issues in a direct manner. Any number of times situations can be completely defused by this effort, due to the reality that the corporate rumor mill, finding no grist, will create its own. Your approach should be to make the effort to get to the heart of the matter in a business-like manner and uncover the facts directly. In the event that this direct approach leads you to the conclusion that there is some truth to the situation then move to get the facts.

Very few actions today are done without some record.  Think logically about the nature of the circumstance. Should you be looking for email? Expense records? or Customer letters? It is by far better to have a very directed look for the evidence than a general sweep of information that will just add more grist to the rumor mill. Independent factual evidence will go a long way to supporting your concerns and still ensuring that you can maintain a position of objectivity.

In any event you must ensure that the records of this investigation are complete and meticulous. Having obtained evidence is the first part of the activity. You must ensure that the evidence is complete and maintained in a defensible manner. Further, once you believe you have evidence to support your hunches it is always best to remain objective and seek explanations of those involved. In cases where you’ve caught the perpetrator cold handed you may decide to move more directly.

Whose job is it anyway?

So, the evidence exists and now you are faced with the reality of action. Is the situation contained within your own organization? If it is, then you need to confront the involved parties to review the situation. Remember Leadership rule 1: Seek the truth.

Your role should be to examine the facts, discuss with the involved parties and determine whether there is cause for concern. If the situation is in the domain of another leader in the company, meet with them to discuss the evidence and ask that you be briefed on the results of the investigation. In any case, the results of the discussion will determine if there is further action warranted.  Factual discovery and expediency are the most important motivators at this point.

Confront the locomotive

Finding corroborating evidence of wrong doing requires you to bring it to the leadership team. Seek out a meeting with your boss and/or the highest ranking authority of the leadership team. Present the evidence and make your case based upon the factual knowledge you have. Avoid laying blame and passing judgment, but rather outline how the observed behavior diverges from the ethical standards the company expects. Ensure that there is a timely commitment given to resolve the issue and, most importantly, how the breach of ethics occurred (process failure or human error?).

Communicate your expectations of an expedient solution and allow for a reasonable timeframe to resolve. If you are not involved in the resolution, ask for a follow up meeting to be updated. If you are involved, then participate objectively and focus on your role to conclude this issue without exacerbating the problem further.

If the train runs off the tracks…

There may ultimately be a circumstance where you have to evaluate your own ethical standards and how they intersect with those of your company. If there is a nagging gap and the leadership is unable or unwilling to resolve this difference, you have to decide what your best course of action is.

Leaving your employer because of ethical differences is not any easy move. It often leaves you frustrated and you leadership peers feeling defensive. Nevertheless, if in your heart you know that this gap in ethics is not going to bridged, then exit cleanly. Your exit strategy should be straightforward. Talk to your boss. Identify what you concluded, highlight where you and the company parted company ethically and then move on. Unless you plan to take your case public there is no gain in spreading the message further.

Your checklist:

  1. Ensure your company has adequate ethical standards that all know and follow,
  2. If you suspect something then investigate the facts,
  3. Confront the parties who are at the center of the situation with the facts, seek to understand their role and actions,
  4. If evidence is corroborated by participants then take action, and
  5. If your company is unwilling or unable to deal with it you must determine if this is a place for you to work.
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