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Keeping Your Colleagues Honest
onathan has a new job. Just promoted from the accounting group at headquarters, he is now the controller for a regional sales unit of a consumer electronics company. He is excited about this step up and wants to build a good relationship with his new team. However, when the quarterly numbers come due, he realizes that the next quarter’s sales are being reported early to boost bonus compensation. The group manager’s silence suggests that this sort of thing has probably happened before. Having dealt with such distortion
when he sat in corporate, Jonathan is fully aware of its potential to cause major damage. But this is his first time working with people who are creating the problem instead of those who are trying to fix it.
This may seem like a mundane accounting matter. But the consequences— in terms of carrying costs, distorted forecasting, compromised ethical culture, and even legal ramifications—are very serious. And except in extraordinarily well-run corporations, this kind of situation can arise easily. All managers should know how to respond constructively
Many Excuses for Silence
When a manager encounters an ethical problem, chances are he’ll also hear— or tell himself—one of four classic rationalizations for keeping silent.
It’s standard practice. Jonathan will probably encounter this excuse when he questions his group’s quarterly sales report. Though this kind of distortion is common, that does not diminish the costs it can trigger, the fact it is unethical, or the dangerous ripple effects it can have on the business down the road.
ILLUSTRATION: KIM ROSEN
How to challenge unethical behavior at work—and prevail by Mary C. Gentile
(indeed, learning to do so is a key piece of their professional development), and senior managers must be able to change the cultural norms that gave rise to bad judgment in the first place.
Over the past four years, I have studied the moments when people decide whether to speak up about an ethical issue, and what they say when they do.
I’ve collected stories from managers at all levels, with a particular focus on the earlier years in careers and on individuals who have positive stories to tell. These stories—along with the social-psychology research on decision making—shed light on what enables people to be candid when they encounter ethical conflicts in the workplace. The insights I describe here can help younger managers raise their voices when they should and help senior managers build a strong, honest organizational culture.
114 Harvard Business Review March 2010
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FOR FURTHER READING
Cognitive Biases in
It’s not a big deal. When Maureen, a product-engineering manager at a computer systems company, learned that her group’s single-wipe process for reconfiguring hard drives was failing 5% of the time, she knew that some customers would end up with a reconditioned machine that still contained the previous owner’s information. But her colleagues argued that no one had complained, that it was unlikely to cause a problem anyway, and that no one wanted to take on the cost of resolving the issue in a time of budget cuts.
It’s not my responsibility. You or your colleagues may be tempted to say that you’re too new in the job to chime in, that you don’t have the authority, or that you’re not the expert. Junior employees often get this message from others—but,
I was surprised to discover, so do senior executives. For example, Denise, a senior vice president and the COO at a regional hospital, had a…