When should you leave an unethical culture?

Most employees do, at some point, flirt with the idea of leaving their organisation as they start dreaming of greener pastures, either because of boredom, stagnation, unhappiness or the need to increase their income. That flirting may be fleeting or turn serious and become the beginning of the end of the relationship with the organisation. In some cases, there is hardly a preceding flirting as unexpected circumstances create an opportunity for a quick exit. There are of course also situations when the organisation is the one that initiates the exit. Those are normal run of the mill exits. Herein I want to focus on circumstances where the individual becomes aware of unethical behaviour within the organisation that conflicts with her personal values, professional code of ethics and/or the law. Many people struggle with what they should do and generally would fall into three broad categories: a) those who choose to go into self-preservation mode and therefore remain silent and keep their heads down, b) those who choose to report unethical behaviour and c) those who choose to exit because they do not want to be associated with the organisation (another form of self-preservation). Those in the second category may eventually be forced out, especially when the people they have exposed are powerful. They may find themselves being victimised or that the leadership does not take adequate action with regard to what they have reported. As professionals, keeping our heads down in self-preservation mode, should not be an option for us. Besides the obligation that being a professional brings, in relation to the relevant codes of ethics and standards, there is also the bigger picture to consider. Can we allow unethical behaviour to erode an organisation? Even if one were to look at it from a self-preservation perspective there is always a risk that the collapse of an organisation could happen on our watch. There are also many examples where the corruption eventually becomes public, and questions are asked about the silence of the professionals in the organisation during that time. Some people find it difficult to find another job simply because their CVs indicate their association with an organisation engulfed in a scandal. The next question would then be whether one should do something about the unethical behaviour you have encountered, or simply just wash your hands and exit. This is a question many professionals struggle with, especially when the stakes are high. What often does come into play, sometimes even more so than personality and personal conviction, is the societal culture and the stakes for the economy. It is not uncommon to find that in cases where the societal culture is based on individualism, many would not see the need to put themselves at risk by exposing unethical behaviour. One would therefore hear statements like: If the organisational values are not aligned to mine, I will just leave.  In those scenarios people may be emboldened by the fact that the collapse of an organisation, notwithstanding its size, would not have a significant impact on the economy. However, when an individual is in a country where the societal values are based on collectivism, it may not be as easy as deciding to jump ship. They may be hamstrung by a sense of duty to the greater good. If you combine that with the collapse of an organisation having a significant adverse effect on the economy, the decision to leave without addressing the unethical behaviour becomes a greater source of inner turmoil. There is of course also the general state of the economy that may play a role. The more difficult it may be to find another job, the more difficult that decision becomes. How do you decide when it is time to leave? It really is an individual choice that does not have a straightforward answer. Nobody really has the right to play the conscience of another person on their behalf. And we cannot judge from the safer grounds of our own circumstances. Choosing the right course of action is a personal matter. Here are some questions that you may want to consider in the process.
  • If I leave without reporting the unethical behaviour, would I be able to sleep at night knowing the potential consequences of the unethical behaviour if it were to prevail?
  • If I leave without reporting the unethical behaviour, is there a possibility that my decision to not address the unethical behaviour may come back to haunt me later? Would future inquiries reveal my silence in an unfavourable light?
  • If I leave without reporting the unethical behaviour, do I breach my professional code of ethics?

What about a scenario where you have reported the unethical behaviour and now find yourself being victimised; do you leave? Here are some questions you could consider:
  • What is the likelihood that the perpetrators may be forced to exit? If they are being brought to justice, the victimisation is likely to stop. Would you be exiting prematurely?
  • If you exit prematurely, is there a likelihood that your exit may create an opportunity for the perpetrators to reverse the situation back into their favour?
  • How likely is it that the leadership in the organisation will deal with the victimisation, and protect you if necessary?
  • Is it possible that you may be reading victimisation, when that is not what is playing out? Sometimes we become oversensitive and see ghosts that are not really there.
  • How likely is it that your life may be in danger, or that your reputation and career may be destroyed through a character assassination campaign? You are the only one who can assess whether you are in self-preservation mode or whether you are in fact in real danger.

A good friend of mine told me once that his father-in-law gave him this valuable advice: When you see a snake in the garden, kill it. When you find yourself in a snake pit, get out. When an organisation is steeped in corruption that goes right to the top, you need to consider very carefully how you will deal with the situation. Many a whistle blower did not survive a rash approach to exposing the corruption. See my video on “Blowing the whistle safely”. We may not have the luxury of keeping quiet, but it is important that we think through our strategy very carefully. Sometimes it is better to exit the organisation and create a safe distance before reporting the unethical behaviour. What about a scenario where they strike first, for example you suddenly find yourself in a position where you are accused of unethical behaviour? You may suddenly find your name in the newspapers after the allegations have been leaked to the media or a media statement has been issued by the organisation. There may also be an internal announcement or people told to not talk to you. This is not an uncommon tactic of people who want to discredit you and get rid of you. This is one of the worst type of scenarios any professional may find himself in. Some of the things you should consider include:
  • Just resigning may make you look guilty.
  • Do not allow it to become personal in your mind. This is not about you; it is about the people who find your presence inconvenient because they are on the wrong side of ethics. The minute you make it personal in your head, part of the battle is lost.
  • Work with someone who can help you keep your head in the game. Preferably someone who understands situations like these and is skilled in whistle blower support. It is easy to become emotional at the thought of your name being dragged through the mud and lose focus in the process. When you respond in anger, part of the battle is lost. When we’re emotional, we tend to forget important facts.
  • Get legal advice. They are likely to engage their legal counsel. Don’t underestimate the legal process. It may cost you in legal fees, but it is better than the cost of losing and walking around with the guilty label on your forehead for the rest of your life. A good lawyer can help you navigate through the landmines.
  • Prepare yourself for a long haul. Many of these cases are not resolved in a few days. You may even end up in court.

They may end up offering you a settlement amount to get rid of you, if it becomes clear that they won’t be able to win the case, if it were to end up in court. Should you accept it? It depends on the circumstances and what is at stake. But do remember that if it were to end up in court, it may become a dragged-out process that eats up all your energy during that time. You need to weigh up your options and see whether it will be worth it to keep fighting. If you do end up with a settlement agreement, your lawyer can help you ensure that it is favourable, but also include your legal fees incurred and a correction of perceptions created in the media. Do expect that some doubt may linger in some people’s minds, but don’t let that govern your life. Keep your head up high and own your story.

More to explore

Outsourced morality

It is incumbent on each of us to constantly evaluate whether our moral compass is still pointing to our true north. We need to continually ask ourselves whether our actions are informed by our own beliefs that we carefully considered, before we concluded that they are fit to be used in our moral compass. How certain are we that we are not just believing what we are because those around us believe it? Or, that we are believing what we are because those who we have crowned with a halo believe it? Applying one’s own mind is paramount if we were to avoid the temptation of outsourcing our morality to others.

Fear can be your friend or your enemy

Whether we like it or not, we were not designed to be fearless. Fear is an emotional response connected to a basic need we all have – to feel safe. In the evolution of the human brain, this had been encoded for a very good reason. Our fear response is designed to trigger an action from us. If it’s a lion, we run. If we were to convince ourselves that we should not show fear and stand our ground, the stand we take is probably going to be immaterial to a starving lion. His fear that you may also be a threat, would most certainly be overridden by his fear of starving to death. Human beings are in any event rather defenceless without our modern weapons.

Know your rhythm

It is important that we work with our rhythm instead of against it. That is a sure way to increase our productivity. In the last number of months, I have started to notice that the number one issue I am dealing with among my coachees is burnout. Often that is because of a lack of understanding of what their rhythm is. We look after ourselves as leaders because we need to give those we lead the best version of ourselves. Selfcare is part of our leadership responsibility.

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