man pulling ace from his sleeve

Ethics and the Problem of Keeping Quiet

If you know a colleague is taking questionable shortcuts in an attempt to deliver strong performance, and you say nothing, does that make you an accomplice? Unethical behavior rarely affects that bad actor alone; in fact, the consequences can be far-reaching and disastrous. Marcy Maslov explores potential responses.

By: Marcy Maslov

Big Boss offers a sales contest to increase the customer base. You overhear a colleague on the phone telling all his contacts about the contest and promising if they help him win, they can return their purchases after the contest is over, no questions asked. Your colleague doesn’t win, so you stay silent about what you heard. Is this appropriate behavior?

-e-Factor!® scenario

A segment on 60 Minutes entitled “Enhancing the Bike” prompted me to write this article. In short, an inventor in Budapest created a bicycle motor that fits into the bike frame or wheel. Professional cyclists may have used this motor as early as 2010 in the Tour de France and the Olympics to unfairly enhance their performance. When asked if he would actually sell the motor to a prospective client who said they intended to use it to cheat, the inventor replied “If money is big enough, why not?”

The main point of the segment was that cyclists will do anything to win the Tour de France, Olympics or other prestigious sporting events – and that there will always be someone willing to sell the latest “magic bullet” to help them. What is so disturbing for me is the attitude of the inventor, the lengths to which some teams may have gone in order to obtain the bike motor and the seemingly total disregard these pro cyclists exhibit for the reputation of the sport and their colleagues. I was lucky enough to see one stage of the Tour de France when I lived in Paris many years ago, and that level of athletic skill has always left me in awe of the athlete. Not anymore.

The scenario above translates the various ethical dilemmas from the cycling world into a business setting. Would you do anything to “win?”  At what point does the risk of getting caught outweigh the thrill of the win?  How much is it really worth to you to come out on top?

In my usual fashion, let’s dissect this scenario and look at all the components of ethical problem solving.  To start, what are the ethics issues? Yes, it appears that our colleague intentionally cheated to win a prize and displayed evident disregard for the spirit of fair play. Although the scenario doesn’t say specifically, our colleague may have been unauthorized to make the promise of returns.  He may also have broken contest rules, which by most guidelines would not have included a “no questions asked” return policy.

These are the obvious ethical issues; there are more subtle ones as well.  By not reporting what we overheard, we are taking a “no harm, no foul” attitude. If left unchecked, this behavior could happen again and again, ultimately preventing someone who actually did play by the rules from winning legitimately. We might be allowing a culture to form that encourages “win at all costs,” and this might inspire others to find creative ways to cheat, just as they found ways to cheat in the cycling world.  Everyone knows pro cycling is corrupt; would you want your business to have the same reputation?

What options do we have in a situation like this scenario besides staying silent? We could report what we heard, either via confidential hotline or to an executive or another colleague.  We could also confront the colleague and ask them to stop cheating. But what if the colleague was a senior executive? How does this change the picture of options we would be willing to consider? It would certainly change the potential consequences each option offers, because now we would have to consider the risk of retaliation or seeing nothing change as factors in making a decision.

Some might take the approach that it’s none of our business, especially if the colleague doesn’t report to us or is one of our executives.  I don’t know about you, but this would erode my confidence in the organization, especially if the “cheater” was a member of the leadership team.  I likely would also distrust the results of any future contests and could also refrain from participating in them.

If we know for certain that someone is cheating and we do nothing, are we also guilty of cheating? Are we an accomplice?  Are we enabling this type of unethical behavior? And if so, are we willing to pay the price?  In this scenario, the consequences could be loss of a job, repayment of the prize, plus loss of integrity and reputation, but a culture of cheating could result in more severe consequences, such as jail-time, loss of licenses, fines, penalties and business closures.  I’ve seen it happen.  In one case, a customer care representative of a former client made statements to a caller that cost the partners their business when that caller reported them to the IRS.

We are not the only stakeholders involved in this situation. Some stakeholders don’t even know they’re involved! Everyone who participated in the contest was a stakeholder, along with Big Boss, our colleague and all the clients who were added as a result of the contest. Imagine a new client finding out that other clients were given permission to return their purchases!

This is only a partial analysis of the ethical dilemma we presented at the beginning of this article.  The last step in our ethical problem solving process is to decide the best and most appropriate action to take.  In the scenario, we did nothing.  Is this best?  If not, what action would you prefer people in your organization to take? Might be a good discussion topic for your next team meeting!

Marcy J. Maslov

About the Author

After watching companies and clients struggle with ethical dilemmas, Marcy J. Maslov invented a business ethics board game to provide a practice arena for solving real-life ethical dilemmas. Marcy is founder and CEO of Empowerment Unlimited Coaching, LLC, a business coaching practice devoted to building strong, ethical leaders and entrepreneurs. She has extensive Fortune 500 and entrepreneurial background including implementation of Sarbanes-Oxley programs, creation of corporate ethics courses, forensic accounting and public speaking on business ethics. Marcy has lived or worked in over 20 countries, including France, Mexico and Canada. She is a Certified Professional Coactive Coach, CPA (Illinois), and MBA (Duke University). Contact Marcy at [email protected] or

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