THE BLOG
06/10/2016 01:45 pm ET Updated Jun 11, 2017

Unethical Behavior: Sit Back or Fight Back?

I was lucky enough to grow up with parents who were highly ethical and trustworthy people. In fact, my Mom held an elected office at the county level for many years because she wanted to change the government for the better. And my Dad also ran for County Coroner for the same reasons. As good as their intentions were, they were both shocked and appalled at how deep the corruption was - even at the county level.

Another example of their integrity is that when my Dad was a dentist, he frequently told people when a procedure didn't need to be done (like if someone's wisdom tooth didn't really need to be pulled, he refused to do it for ethical reasons). He simply knew too many dentists who would perform procedures that were just unneeded (especially wisdom teeth extraction), and he didn't want to be one of those people.

Because of my parents' constant ethical behavior, for most of my life, I was very trusting of other people. Or should I say instead, too trusting. Since I always believed people's words, I have gotten burned in the past by my naivety. But that made me learn really quickly to read people in a different way - by their actions, and not their words. I know that sounds cliché, but it is so true.

As a professor who teaches about relationships and positive communication, I frequently lecture about ethical behaviors in many of my classes. But this problem goes way beyond personal relationships. Let's face it - it seems like we live in an age where we all see a lot of borderline criminal behavior in our work places. As for me, even though I haven't witnessed overtly criminal behavior, I have definitely seen a lot of blatant pathological lying that wreaked havoc on everyone in the line of fire. In fact, we had one person who made our work lives miserable, but many of us were afraid to report the person. I guess we were afraid to be the "whistle blower."

Whether it was a fear of getting fired or the possibility of testifying in court, there are a lot of considerations for whistle blowers. Because of that, I was curious to find out more about the kind of people who have the courage to actually call out unethical behavior in the workplace. And so I thought I would do some research to see out what some professionals say about blowing the whistle on unethical behavior.

What I found in doing this research is very interesting. First, I wanted to know how long the whistle blowers wait to speak up and if they are hesitant or eager to do so. According to Steve Berman, "Whistle blowers usually take their time because they recognize both that deciding whether to report fraud is an important decision, and also that they may experience adverse consequences as a result of blowing the whistle. While there are whistle blowers who feel they need to report certain types of fraud as quickly as possible - because of, for example, health & safety concerns - in general whistle blowers are hesitant to blow the whistle. In fact, most whistle blowers who approach us have tried nearly every way possible to change the fraudulent conduct before filing a lawsuit."

As I imagined might happen, the whistle blowers frequently lose their jobs as a result of their actions. And if they are not fired, they could be demoted or even blacklisted from an entire industry. The fear of these types of consequences is what stops many people from reporting unethical behavior.

Unfortunately, the prevalence of unethical behavior in corporate America is pretty high, but there doesn't seem to be a "type" of person who is most likely to commit unethical behavior in the workplace, according to what I read.

The reason that most whistle blowers decide to come forward is because they have reached a breaking point of sorts. They have either witnessed fraud, seen something dangerous or pervasive, or employees' concerns are just being blatantly ignored. Most of them have tried to make changes before they formally file a complaint or in some cases, a lawsuit.

It takes courage to blow the whistle. Most people are afraid, and it is scary to think of reporting unethical behavior. If you have worked somewhere a long time or if you're concerned about losing your income (which most people are), it's not an easy decision. And maybe you are even friends with the people who are committing the crimes. Whistle blowers tend to have a special combination of courage and determination. But luckily, it does seem like there is some legal protection for them.

So what would you do? Maybe you're even in a situation like this right now. It's not an easy decision. But even though the whistle blower has a lot to lose, if we don't hold other people accountable for their unethical behavior, then people will just continue to get away with it. I hope I gave you some things to think about, because even if you're not thinking about blowing the whistle, it's important to hold people accountable for their behavior.