Shady Business

What to do when you observe unethical behavior at work — even if it comes from your boss.
Illustration by Tony Healey

Melanie Warner Spencer is editor of New Orleans Bride and New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles and managing editor of Louisiana Life and Acadiana Profile. Spencer’s ever-expanding library of etiquette books is rivaled only by her ever-ready stash of blank thank-you notes. Submit business etiquette questions to

It’s easy to find news stories about political leaders and industry titans implicated, arrested or indicted. But what happens if you’re faced with unethical behavior at work? What would you do?

We all like to think we have a sturdy ethical compass, but when put in the uncomfortable position of observing someone else’s corrupt business dealings or, worse yet, being asked or directed to participate, we might not be prepared to handle it. Who would you turn to with potentially damning information? What about retaliation? With a bit of preparation, deciding whether or not to raise a red flag about someone else’s conduct can be somewhat easier to navigate.

1. Turn to the book.

If you observe someone doing something you believe may be unethical, it’s important to first consult your company’s handbook. While the behavior or action is against your personal or religious code, it may not be against company policy. If it is a violation, speak to the person directly, refer them to the handbook and let them know that if the tables were turned, you’d want someone to do the same for you. Perhaps they aren’t aware it’s a violation. Tread lightly and don’t make the transgressions public until you know and, ideally, have proof there is a problem. It’s good to distance yourself from employees who behave unethically, but don’t allow this to keep you from performing your duties. It’s time to alert management when the behavior crosses into illegal activity or damages the company.

2. Clarify the situation.

It’s one thing to deal with unethical behavior from an equal or underling, but what if the other party is your boss? According to a 2017 New York Times article on the subject, it’s important to first “rule out a misunderstanding. Explain why the request made you uneasy. If you can, cite specific company policies that it seems to defy.” It goes on to offer specific phrasing from Paul Fiorelli, the director of Cintas Institute for Business Ethics at Xavier University. Fiorelli suggests saying the following: “You’ve asked me to do this, but if I did this it would violate this policy we have. You’re not asking me to do that, are you?”

The piece says it’s possible that “the boss hadn’t considered his or her request unethical. Citing specific reasons for your objection could help them see why the request is unreasonable — or could solidify that yes, they really do want you to do something you’re not willing to do.”

Finally, it suggests offering “a more ethical alternative that would produce similar results.”

3. Consider the culture.

After confirming your boss is directing you to operate unethically, decide whether or not to lodge a complaint. Consider your company culture (will they take action or turn a blind eye?) and retaliation. According to the 2018 Global Business Ethics Survey by the Ethics & Compliance Initiative, “Overall, 40 percent of employees indicated that they experienced retaliation after reporting misconduct (based on the 23 types of misconduct assessed).”

4. If all else fails, consider moving on.

If experience has taught you nothing will change or management, your direct boss or colleagues will retaliate, it might be time to look for a job with a company whose values and integrity align with your own. What should you look for when seeking those types of companies? Seek companies that clearly communicate their values. The Ethics & Compliance Initiative’s “Building Companies Where Values and Ethical Conduct Matter” report states that “to develop proactive communication, leaders at all levels of a company must communicate that they expect adherence to the company’s standards of ethical conduct. They do so by talking about the importance of ethical conduct. At a minimum, leaders need to talk consistently about ethical conduct and the ways in which the company expects their employees to behave. But just talking about ethics is not enough. Leaders must also encourage employees to speak up when standards are not being observed. Instead of relying on one-way exchanges, the goal should be a climate where employees feel empowered to raise concerns.”


The old adage that the right thing to do is not always the easiest thing to do most certainly rings true when we find ourselves in the position of unethical behavior at work, but it’s certainly worth it in the long run to have the peace of mind that comes from acting with grace, tact and integrity.