In a recent Weekly
Ethics Thought, I said,
“Should you become aware
of an ethics concern that does not require being reported due to legal or
organizational mandates, the first thing to do is to diplomatically discuss the
matter with the individual(s) about whose behavior you are concerned. If that
takes care of the problem, you have discharged your ethical duty in all but the
But what if that doesn’t
take care of the problem? To whom are you going to go next? Not knowing the
answer to that question does not excuse a lack of follow-up! You must find out
to whom you need to speak and then do so.
For starters, everybody
in your organization has an immediate supervisor and they will likely be the
best person with whom to discuss your concerns. Should your concerns not be
taken seriously by the supervisor, though, that person has a supervisor as well
to whom you can go. Feel like you can’t take it to a supervisor for some
reason? Then take it to your HR or Compliance department if you have one. No HR
or Compliance department because your business is too small? Take it to the
There will always be
someone to whom to bring your concerns. You may or may not like their response
or plan of action but your duty is discharged when you have appropriately
notified the proper person.
Should your concerns be
about a matter requiring a formal report because of either a legal or
organizational mandate, that mandate will always specify a course of action
including providing you the proper contact person(s) to whom to bring your
concerns. In addition, any legal mandates will usually specify whom to
contact outside of your organization should your concerns not be appropriately
addressed internally. Be sure to know with whom you need to speak about which
types of ethics problems or concerns. Rightly or wrongly, not doing so will
almost inevitably result in your sharing a portion of the ethical culpability.”
I was alarmed by how many
readers emailed me to describe ethical or legal concerns they had reported all
the way up the chain of command only to be ignored or rebuffed at every step.
One person was in the process of resigning because of their frustration and
wish not to be associated with the kinds of behavior being shown by their
A common question was what
the next step needs to be when you have exhausted the chain of command in these
situations. The answer is that, though there aren’t a lot of choices, there are
certainly still some:
counsel if there is one.
Inform internal or
external auditors if the issue is financial.
enforcement if the actions you see are illegal.
Decide if you can
stay knowing that critical issues are being ignored. (There is not ever an
absolutely right or wrong answer to this question, however. You need to let a
combination of your conscience, your gut, and your mind come to the best
agreement they reasonably can.)
In the meantime, though,
what remains the most important thing is to assure that you have, in fact,
clearly reported your observations and concerns to the appropriate parties.
Have you been in a
situation where you have taken your concerns all the way up the line and met a
complete lack of concern or never gotten a reasonable response? I’d be interested in what your
experiences have been. Let me know – as well as whether or not I am free to
cite your situation as an example in my programs or here on the Ethics Nexus
blog. I would obviously do so without identifying either you or your