When a Witness Questions Authority

And Is Informed He May Lose His Job

Sunday, September 29, 2013
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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.


Independent Discussion Guidelines

I agree that most people will sit on the sidelines when confronted with such an issue. Where I work 4 of us have resigned because of practices perceived as unethical and not in-line with regulations. Sometimes the "gnawing" in the gut is so intolerable that resigning and/or reporting to the proper authority is the healthy thing to do, regardless of the financial consequences. I hope others will step up to the plate as we did.

ethical1 (anonymous profile)
September 29, 2013 at 10:11 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Maybe the person can arrange for an outside, third party, to witness the offense so that it can be reported without implication.

pnortonsb (anonymous profile)
September 29, 2013 at 12:45 p.m. (Suggest removal)

This sounds like the same dilemma faced by those at Penn State. A question in this matter is, who is being harmed? How egregiously?

sbsailor (anonymous profile)
September 29, 2013 at 5:51 p.m. (Suggest removal)

if anyone is being harmed or at risk of being harmed, you have to blow the whistle. If customers are being cheated on the quality of the merchandise, let them find out for themselves, or find an anonymous way of tipping them off.

blackpoodles (anonymous profile)
September 29, 2013 at 8:36 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I appreciate pnortonsb's idea which is to share some responsibility, and in numbers we can gain courage/protection. If it's been going on awhile surely others have witnessed it or suspected: anonymous could delicately make leading questions and... leave it hanging and possibly later someone sidles up and then THAT person has broached the topic... I dunno, it depends very much on the severity of the improper action.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
September 30, 2013 at 5:20 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I appreciate the comments, regardless of whether you agree with me.
These decision are always tough ones. I had the luxury to "walk" every time I was faced with a serious ethical challenge and I have no regrets.

But some people, as I wrote, just don't have that luxury to leave a bad situation.

Yes, it is the Penn State situation. A number of smart, successful people threw their careers and their reputations away because they remained silent.


benbyce (anonymous profile)
September 30, 2013 at 9:58 p.m. (Suggest removal)

"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me." -Martin Niemöller- (1892-1984) German pastor, who spent the last seven years of the Nazi rule in captivity for his opposition to Nazism.

billclausen (anonymous profile)
October 1, 2013 at 5:59 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Here's a variation and a challenge, Ben: in real-time (and sure, you have to be careful here so this is specifically HYPOTHETICAL): in today's Indy's online article by Lyz Hoffman about 39 former students suing Pacifica Graduate Institute -- -- let's hypothetically assume at least a few administrators and clerical staff there knew that year after year the school claimed it had the APA certification, but in 2008 it was denied that topranked certification, and they may never get it. Let's say a secretary or whatever saw this occurring year after year, and I've seen this claim in their glossy brochures, and understands the Institute is leading students and prospective students on... despite the "pending" word.
IF you are that clerical person, and this is at least "improper" if not intentional false advertising (lying), and real people are being or will be damaged financially, would you report it to the APA or the newspapers or Steven Eizenstadt the former longer boss there??
For the record, I think Pacifica is pretty cool.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
October 2, 2013 at 11:47 a.m. (Suggest removal)

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