Most attention on the topic of business ethics is focused on leaders. There are many articles for leaders about how to communicate and enforce ethical decision-making within organisations. The media and government also seek to hold leaders at the highest levels of accountability by uncovering evidence of corruption. However, very little is written about the role of “rank and file” employees – followers – in corruption cases. These individuals pay a high price as a result of government and corporate corruption. When corruption is uncovered, bankruptcy and loss of employment are common.
Furthermore, researchers at Stanford reported that working for a company involved in corruption can tarnish the reputation of employees at all levels – even those not involved in unethical behaviour. Their research found a “moral spillover” in which the unethical activities of a few can lead the public to develop a general negative ethical impression of everyone in the organisation. As an example, researchers often highlight the ongoing negative public impression of Enron employees even now – more than 10 years after that firm failed in 2001.
What responsibility do followers hold when they learn about unethical business practices? What should they do when asked (or ordered) to participate in corrupt practices? What can “rank and file” employees do to increase the overall level of integrity within their workplaces? The global anti-corruption non-governmental organisation, Transparency International, provides five things followers can do to fight corruption.
1. Speak Up!
Whistleblowing is less common in Asia due to strong cultural influences discouraging the practice. As a high power distance culture, Malaysian employees generally tend to expect to be told what to do and not to openly challenge leadership. Malaysians tend to be highly collectivistic and, thus, place high value on loyalty to the group (e.g. employer) as well as peaceful relationships.
Despite these cultural influences, whistleblowing does exist in Asia. One positive example of whistleblowing in Asia is the case of Jiang Weisuo who exposed a tainted milk product in China. He blew the whistle on milk powder contaminated with melamine that resulted in the death of at least six babies and hundreds of thousands of illnesses. Jiang was a pioneer in fighting for food safety in China and helped improve conditions across the industry.
2. Say no!
It is important for individuals to personally say “no” to unethical business practices, especially bribery. We each must consider our individual roles in encouraging or fighting corruption. While policies such as China’s ban on golf by party members may seem like logical steps to combat corruption, loopholes quickly emerge.
Decisions must be based on principles of fairness, integrity and transparency – not on the likelihood of getting caught or technical legality. Each of us must make a stand against corruption regardless of what is going on around us. Ethics author Harvey Hornstein warns that working for corrupt or abusive bosses may lead to a sense of entitlement to behave badly oneself. Hornstein asserts that being in a bad situation is not an excuse for personal unethical behaviour and that we are each accountable for our actions despite pressure from others in the organisation.
3. Ask questions!
When speaking up against corruption, it’s better to start by asking questions rather than making accusations. Most companies communicate values statements and policies espousing integrity and outlining corporate acceptable practices. Values statements and policies can serve as an opening to ask questions about how decisions and behaviours align with these standards.
Use phrases like “Can you help me understand…” or “Can you help me see how this fits with our policy on…” Sometimes, colleagues are not aware of the potential ethical implications of their actions. Discussions such as these help keep ethics at the top of the mind and create a culture of integrity.
4. Know your rights!
An in-depth review of Malaysia’s anti-corruption and whistleblower protection laws is beyond the scope of this article. However, it is important to read and understand the specific processes outlined in these Acts. The Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission website (www.sprm.gov.my) is a good reference point for these laws and an avenue to submit a report of corruption.
5. Practise good values!
We each play an important role in creating high integrity cultures within our workplaces. All of us will face ethical dilemmas from time to time in our work. Ethics experts David De Cremer and Bjarne Lemmich recently explained how easy it is for us to rationalise questionable decisions in ethical “grey areas”. Of course, the consequences to others of relatively “small” ethical violations may be greater than anyone anticipates. Perhaps even more problematic is the tendency for people to quickly become increasingly comfortable with more egregious violations. Research and practice demonstrate the dangers of a gradual decline in ethical decision-making. Transparency International recommends that individuals take responsibility to actively nurture a lifestyle of integrity, justice, and fairness.
Furthermore, building a network of colleagues for encouragement and mutual accountability is an important way to drive a culture of integrity at the grassroots level. Reaching out to others for support helps in the struggle to stand firm in the small and large challenges that come with daily ethics. Practising integrity continually in all areas of our lives helps to repel those who would seek to influence us into corruption and helps us to quickly recognise when a decision is wrong.
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Food for thought
The scandal whereby Volkswagen (VW) cheated on air quality emissions test results is a clear case where both leaders and followers were at fault. While it isn’t clear what the most senior leaders knew (or didn’t know), there is evidence suggesting that teams of engineers were involved. Could this scandal and resulting fallout have been avoided if one (or two) engineers had said “no”, asked questions about the discrepancies, or reported the wrongdoing through VW’s compliance process? Certainly, this would not have happened if each of these engineers individually abided by the ethical guidelines of VW and the Software Engineering Code of Ethics. Now, the company is embroiled in scandal and facing massive fines. It is already planning substantial layoffs to cut costs as it prepares for the financial impact.
Furthermore, scientists have estimated that the environmental impact of the deception is between 40 and 106 deaths in the United States alone. This case shows how unethical decisions about something as remote and hidden as lines of software code can have serious repercussions for the environment and human life.
Advice for speaking up
A recent Harvard Business Review provided some specific advice about how to speak up against ethical problems at work. The author, Amy Gallo, provided four pieces of advice:
- Don’t overestimate how difficult the conversation will be or the consequences of speaking up. Building up fear of the situation often causes us to rationalise the situation and ignore our responsibility to reporting it.
- Do clearly think through the pros and cons of making the report. Is reporting a colleague for leaving early really worth it? Does she complete her work on time? Consider how the situation is violating an important ethical value to you or to the larger group.
- Seek to understand the motivation behind the behaviour. It’s helpful to try to see the situation from the other person’s point of view. Perhaps there is an ethical way to work through the situation.
- Consider the cost of speaking up by weighing the pros and cons to the company, stakeholders, and yourself – including your personal ethical reputation.
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