HUMAN RESOURCES / NOV. 21, 2014
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How to Handle an Ethical Dilemma with a Corrupt Superior

The subject of ethics in the workplace is a very elusive one to say the least. Reason being, that in some cases, one can’t really draw the line between tolerable practices and punishable ones. For instance, companies have been forgiven on numerous occasions for manipulating the final outcome of short-listed candidates. In this case, the ethical ’malpractice’ is tolerated by the dominant culture within the company. It should, however, be noted that when dealing with such ethical dilemmas, the back ultimately stops with the integrity of the company’s superior. That being said, it’s quite easy to spot a corrupt superior based on the ethical malpractices being tolerated. Still, the level of corruption can’t be determined unless it’s weighed against certain company parameters such as: 

  • General sense of Staff’s Morality - Company staff are more or less a community with certain acceptable norms and practices. This of course varies with different localities, nationalities and so on. That being said, if your country is corrupt, then chances are, staff members have a certain tolerance for corrupt malpractices which means that the corrupt superior might not be ’that corrupt’ after all. If the ethical dilemma is within the acceptable moral boundaries of staff members, then there’s really nothing much you can do.
  • Psychological Impact on the Workforce - Company decisions are usually shaped in a way that sounds sweet to the ears of the workforce, especially if the decisions are not so sweet after all. For instance, it’s ethically wrong to withhold salary increases when the company is experiencing rapid growth in profits, yet this happens all the time. If the workforce is governed by harsh and severe rules, then they’ll easily accept a negligible salary increase just to numb the psychological effect of not having a salary increase that they truly deserve. 
  • Level of Transparency within the Company - Different companies uphold different standards when it comes to transparency. If a company is shrouded with lots of secrecy, then maybe some level of corruption does serve its own unique purpose within company affairs. And that’s how scandals come about. A corrupt malpractice might be acceptable within company quarters, yet, when it reaches the ears and eyes of the authorities, it then becomes a criminal act with serious legal implications. 
  • Integrity of Auditing Processes - Authorities overlooking company affairs are also answerable to someone. For instance, it’s a well known fact that government auditors randomly visit companies to check for tax evasion. Yet despite these auditing processes, tax evasion does happen. This can only mean that individuals within the tax authority itself have vested interests in your company. You’ll therefore have to deal with some pretty powerful individuals if you’re to tackle such an ethical dilemma.
  • Level of Accountability - If the company has negligible accountability mechanisms, then there’s really nothing much you can do. Reason being, that accountability is based upon evidence. And if there’s no evidence, then there’s no accountability which means that the ethical dilemma will persist with convenience and ease.
  • Integrity within the Company - Every company boasts of its own set of policies. However, integrity can only be possible if these policies are followed to the latter. Anything other than that just goes to show you how much some ethical dilemmas are accepted. 

That being said, a serious challenge presents itself...

How does one handle an ethical dilemma with a corrupt superior

#1 Carefully consider the character of the superior
We’re always told to choose our enemies carefully and in this case, you’re looking at one heck of a potential enemy. I don’t think a corrupt superior would be pleased if you showed them their dirty linen. First off, they’re corrupt and second, their level of ethical deficiency can extend to the very vengeful acts they’re capable of. This might mean sudden job loss, tainting of one’s image or even murder if you’re dealing with a very powerful figure. So it would be wise to calculate your steps carefully and consider whom you’re dealing with. And on that note...

#2 Have concrete evidence to back up your claims
To avoid the risk of being labelled a conspiracy theorist, you should make sure that every claim is backed up by some serious and convincing evidence. That’s because the case might hit the fan and blow out of proportions. And if that happens, then it means that other staff members might be implicated as well. End result - your opponents will have quadrupled and you’ll need the help of the authorities to address the ethical dilemma. However, the authorities won’t respond effectively unless you’ve got clear evidence to back up your claims. And in light of having too many enemies, you should...

#3 Consult company superiors to gain much needed support
We’ve heard this phrase in movies on countless occasions, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend". This phrase should be the guiding light in helping you form alliances with various superiors within the company. If any superior has frequently clashed with the corrupt superior, then you’ve got the much needed leverage to garner support for your claims. That way, the corrupt superior will think twice if they ever decide to discredit your claims considering the formidable force behind you.

I don’t think ethics will ever have a universal consensus any time soon. In fact, from what we’ve discussed, there’s really no pre-existing ethical religion out there. Ethics is generally formulated by the circumstances on the ground. But when it comes to ethical boundaries, the words of Potter Stewart give us the defining conclusion, "Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do."

Image Credit: LinkedIn

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