Responding to Unethical Behavior

7 min

You might also be afraid of becoming a target yourself, getting demoted or fired, or just getting it wrong and looking foolish.

It's your responsibility to notice, assess, and respond to unethical behavior at work.

Here are some steps you can take to respond appropriately to unethical behavior at the office:

1. Review the rules

Check your company's handbook or code of conduct to see if there is an explicit rule being broken. If there isn't, there may be a general conduct clause that covers what's happening.

e.g "Any expenses for business travel and entertainment exceeding $100 must be pre-approved by the Finance office. Alcoholic beverages are not a legitimate expense."

2. Document what you see and hear

Keep a log and write down where and when the behavior happened and anyone who was involved. It doesn't have to be formal, but it will help protect you in case you're called on to provide evidence.

TIP: Sending yourself an email or putting it in a Google doc timestamps it and gives it additional credibility.

e.g "On March 1, 2017, Rob and Joan had a heated argument in the kitchen. He appeared to shove her as he walked out the door."

3. If you feel comfortable enough, approach the person privately

Be calm and non- accusatory about your concerns.

e.g "Hey Deb, I overheard you talking to Phil the other day. It seemed intense. Is everything okay?"

4. Go to management or HR

If you don't feel comfortable approaching the person, or if the behavior persists, go to your manager or to HR to discuss it. If you have documentation, bring it with you.

Keep in mind:
Small actions add up. 

When we tolerate some kinds of unethical behavior, it opens the door to more serious kinds.

Let's practice!

Vera is processing her boss's expenses. There's a receipt for a very large sum that he's noted as an "entertainment" expense. She suspects that it is for a "gentleman's club." She is uncomfortable with both the nature of the expense and the amount.

Quiz 1 of 2

What is the first thing she should do to respond to this behavior?

Check the company handbook to know the rules regarding expenses.
Process the expense anyway.
Confront her boss, even though she's uncomfortable doing so.
Make a formal complaint to Human Resources.

The correct answer is A.

Vera should first check the company's handbook to understand what is allowed for entertainment expenses.

What should Vera do next?

Quiz 2 of 2

What should Vera do next?

Confront her boss with the information.
Document the incident.
Go to a manager or Human Resources.
Submit the expenses without comment.

The correct answer is B.

Vera should document the incident. She could send herself an email with the details, for example, to get a timestamped record. 


Review your company's code of conduct or handbook. Check the website or ask HR for one if you don't have a copy.

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