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When a Witness Questions Authority

And Is Informed He May Lose His Job


Anonymous writes: I witnessed improper and maybe even illegal actions at my workplace. I can’t say what happened in print. I told my supervisor, who said, “Don’t worry about it; I’ll take care of it.” That was over a year ago, and nothing has changed. I recently asked my supervisor again what is being done to change the improper practices. She said that I did all the law required by reporting to her. She ordered me not to mention it again or my own job security might be in jeopardy. She told me, “Just go along to get along. Got it?”

Do I have an ethical duty to go over her head to make sure that the boss or even the board of directors knows about this problem? I cannot afford to lose my job, my benefits, and my retirement, but what I witnessed gnaws at me.

Street Ethics responds: “Go along to get along.” As someone who came of age in the 1960s, I often heard the same pronouncements from my parents, teachers, employers, and others when I questioned authority. To this day, I despise that mantra and all that it implies.

Now that I’ve finished my personal tirade, let me get to your question. From what you write, you have already accomplished what was legally required of you. Now the question is, what should you do ethically?

Ben Bycel

I wish there were a computer program in which you could input your facts and issues, and it would clearly produce the best ethical and personal decision for you to make. No such program ever will exist; you are left, as in most ethical decisions, to rely on your own beliefs of right and wrong.

Without knowing the seriousness of the actions you observed (was it stealing company stationery or defrauding the government?), I can offer some questions to consider when making your decision: What might be the implications for others? Are there likely repercussions for you? How long have you witnessed the unethical actions?

How do any of us know when a problem (other than a life-or-death one) is bad enough to require action? It may ease your mind to know that in some cases, a person informing employers or the authorities of wrongdoing, in either the public or private sectors, is shielded from retribution by a patchwork of federal and state whistleblower acts. A lawyer specializing in wrongful termination may be able to help you. The problem is, however, even if you are provided legal protection or receive a financial reward for whistleblowing, there may be long-term negative consequences.

Future employers, even though it is against the law, may be reluctant to hire you because you were a whistleblower. Unfairly, they see you as a troublemaker, not as an ethical stalwart.

Based on what you have written, if you choose to remain silent in order not to jeopardize your livelihood, I think few would criticize your decision. Turning a blind eye to the situation is not an ethical solution so much as a matter of pragmatism, prompted by threat, fear, and loss of income. And that may just be the best you can do, given all the circumstances.

Finally, if it is any solace to you, as much as neither of us accepts the concept of “going along,” almost everyone I know, including me, at one time or another, because of factors beyond our control, has had to do just that.

Benjamin Bycel is an attorney and writer. He was the founding executive director of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission and of the newly reconstituted Connecticut Ethics office. He serves as an expert witness in cases dealing with political and legal ethics.

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