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Compromising Your Ethics

Does Your Salary Buy Blind Loyalty?

Dear Nan,
I am the assistant to three Realtors, helping them with their calls, listing proposals, marketing, etc. There’s al lot of activity (and pressure) in our office, but I like it like that. Here’s my problem: I accidentally saw some highly confidential, personal paperwork that one of my agents had on her desk concerning a sale. She certainly wasn’t supposed to have this information—heaven knows how she came by it. By acting on this information, she took advantage of a situation and made substantially more money than she would have otherwise been entitled. I feigned ignorance and asked her about what I saw. She became defensive, then rushed off for an appointment. The next morning, at a meeting with the other agents, she pushed through a big raise in my salary. I deserved the raise anyway, but this was quite a bit more than I expected. After the meeting, she told me I could keep my job if I “forgot” everything. Believe me, I wish I could—keeping this secret feels like carrying a loaded gun that could go off at any moment. I don’t know what to do. If I say anything to the wrong person, she could lose her license, her job, and maybe even go to jail. If I keep her secret, life will probably go on as normal—with a cloud over it. Part of me wants to clear my conscience, but then I would feel bad for ruining this woman’s career. Another part of me wants to forgive and forget her lapse of judgment. She’s never done this sort of thing before, and she’s told me she will never do it again, and I think I believe her. Should one mistake send her career down the drain? And should I be the one to pull the plug?
- Phyllis

What’s your price to do the deed, keep quiet, or look the other way? Phyllis, you have already been compromised in a most serious way. You may still see yourself as an innocent bystander, but you aren’t. And, you have only a fraction of the control you think you have over the final outcome of this situation.

It sounds like you aren’t looking at the real ethical dilemmas of this situation. A crime has apparently been committed, and you know about it, and you have benefited by keeping silent. From here, you look like an accomplice. If that’s the truth, you need to “put on your track shoes, kid”—as my father used to say—and run, don’t walk, to a senior manager in the firm who can make sense out of what’s happened.

What you do next depends on how you see your dilemma, so you must try very hard to see things as they really are, not as you wish them to be. We all experience this difficulty when we are in the midst of a mess. Don’t we all occasionally see only what we want to see? It is sometimes more comfortable to pretend to be confused or to be in denial of the facts than to challenge ourselves with the tough questions starting with this one: What’s really going on here?

Remember the story of Brer Rabbit and the Tar-Baby? The creature made out of tar and twigs looked innocent enough, but when poor Brer Rabbit patted it, his paw became stuck. Then he got his other paw stuck, and then both feet, just trying to free himself from this sticky situation. The clever farmer was able to trap Brer Rabbit because the naïve bunny saw only what he wanted to see. Our dilemmas can become our tar babies.

From an objective distance, your peers urge you to see the seriousness of your situation and take action immediately. Here’s what a few of them had to say.

“Phyllis, you are keeping quiet for a price. You chose to take the raise as ‘hush money,’” writes Rosemary Swartzell, a secretary in Omaha. “As a professional you are accountable for your actions. Right is right, and wrong is wrong, and this is wrong.”

“Is one’s personal respect and integrity negotiable?” asks Dee Lytle, division office manager of Butler Construction in Kansas City, Missouri.

In the real world, Phyllis’ dilemma is not uncommon. Haven’t we all been seduced by circumstances and situations that turned out to be something different than what they first appeared? The occasional bending of the rules, the special person/client/coworker who gets extra consideration, the last-minute exception, the romantic opportunity, the short-term financial crisis, the difficult client—all of us have used these and dozens of other excuses to not see what is really going on.

In the real world, Phyllis has some choices, but not many. And she has less control and less time to act than she thinks. This is the kind of situation that invariably unravels, making everyone look guilty. That’s all people need to jump to conclusions about the integrity and professionalism of the perpetrators. Just the hint of unethical behavior is enough to derail a person’s career. As Ben Franklin said, “Reputations and fine china are easily broken and poorly mended.”

Phyllis, get out ahead of this situation before it gets away from you. By revising your passive role and becoming a proactive advocate for doing the right thing, you may be able to at least avoid personal legal problems. It’s doubtful whether you can keep this job, and it is almost certain you are facing the beginning of the end of your relationship with this boss.

It’s time to follow the Ethical Compass: protect yourself, protect your company, and protect your boss, in that order.

First, Protect Yourself

Phyllis is in a vulnerable, explosive legal position. “Since Phyllis’ boss has offered her a more than substantial raise, in essence a bribe, and by making the quasi-threats to her job security, she has made Phyllis an unwitting accomplice to her illegal behavior,” says Beverly M. Weaver CPS of East Ohio Gas Co., in Cleveland.

“You have a responsibility to protect yourself from any kind of legal harm, even though you can argue that you came upon this information accidentally,” a writer comments via e-mail. “If your boss’ actions leak out later, can you honestly say you were not aware of them? Your so-called raise may be construed to indict you because you were aware of her actions and did nothing to right the situation or prevent it from happening again.”

Second, Protect Your Company

These are the people who pay your salary, and they deserve your loyalty. It is not Phyllis’ decision whether her boss should be punished or prosecuted. That decision rightly belongs with a senior manager because the company’s clients, financial welfare, and reputation are at risk. Would any senior manager not want to know about this kind of misbehavior?

“Phyllis has a moral obligation to the company, other coworkers, and customers to come forward,” writes Vicki McMillan, HR administrative assistant at Pacifica Papers/Alberni Specialties Division in Port Alberni, British Columbia. Mona Fournier, student at North Island College in Port Alberni adds: “Phyllis’ loyalty should be to the company and to the high standard of service to the customers.” Another student, Connie Rudy, says “Your boss is behaving unethically, and consequently, the clients also are being treated unethically. These actions all reflect on the company.”

Finally, Protect Your Boss

This means Phyllis should be fair and honest at all times, no matter how bad it looks for her boss. How many of us would like to have a chance to defend ourselves before someone judges us unfit and sends us packing? What Phyllis has to understand is that she is too close to the situation (and financially involved) to make any credible judgments about what should or should not be done relative to her boss. That’s the senior manager’s job. If the company decides to believe that this is her first and last transgression, then forgives and forgets, that’s the company’s business.

“Everyone makes mistakes,” writes K.C. who works in a Realtor’s office. “If this agent is truly sincere about never doing it again, then maybe she deserves a second chance.” Gina Thompson, administrative assistant at ESAB Cutting Systems in Florence, South Carolina, agrees. “If this truly is her first time doing such a thing,” she says, “I would be willing to forgive and forget, but if it happens again, you should say something.”

Another wait-and-see approach has Phyllis talking to her boss before talking to the company. Charlie Dickson in Wellington, New Zealand, suggests keeping an open mind. “Is it possible to sit down and have a heart-to-heart talk with her, beginning by telling her that this incident is still bothering you? Your boss may be dying to talk about this unethical episode. Sit down face-to-face, give her an opportunity to tell the truth, assess the facts and her reaction, and then make a final decision. If you are satisfied with her explanation, you may decide to take it no further, in which case it should cease to be a burden on your conscience.”

“I would make it quite clear to my manger that I disapprove of her actions and ask her to not follow through with her intentions,” says Tina Delgado, corporate training coordinator for American Ref-Fuel. “If she still did it, I would definitely report the incident. Integrity, pride, and ethical conduct cannot be bought.”

Others advise Phyllis to not waste a moment worrying about her boss. Kathy O’Donnell CPS, administrative assistant at Ingersoll-Rand Co., in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, says Phyllis sounds like a classic enabler when she says “…but then I would feel bad for ruining this woman’s career.” Kathy writes: “Phyllis wouldn’t be running her boss’ career. Her boss did that all by herself by choosing to act unethically in the first place.”

Phyllis has to speak up. So do many of her peers who can see this dilemma for what it is more clearly from a distance—a cover-up of an illegal activity. The consensus of the many letters I received (the most in the past two years) is that Phyllis needs to speak to her boss, the other two salespeople in the office, and especially her boss’ boss. Phyllis should explain what happened, including her less-than-flattering role, and let senior management address the issue with the offending sales agent.

Incidentally, there seems to be little doubt among the letter writers that senior management would take action, because real estate brokers can lose their licenses and may be penalized with heavy fines for improprieties like this—especially when a client is victimized. At the same time, it is widely acknowledged that Phyllis risks losing her job by speaking up. Either way, she’s been drawn into a no-win situation where she may lose her reputation, her friends, her job, or all three.

For the bosses and supervisors on the receiving end of conversations like the one Phyllis needs to have: You have to listen to the subordinates struggling with ethical dilemmas, and then do what you can to work with them to resolve the problems. You have to provide a safe harbor, a confidential listening post, for those with secrets to unburden. You say you want to know the truth about what is going on? Then be sure you take action, and don’t slay the messenger. If you don’t have the integrity to support those who work for you when they try to do the right thing, you may be a big part of the problem.

Phyllis’ dilemma points out the importance of an established code of ethics or conduct for an organization. Had there been such a written code, with the accompanying steps for employees to follow when confronted with ethical dilemmas, Phyllis would have had a blueprint to follow. We all know, however, that a code of ethics may be just a hollow statement than never gets beyond the employee handbook and a shiny plaque on the wall if management does not continually convey its importance to employees and lead an ethical office by example.

Sadly, my recent survey of more than 2,000 office professionals reveals that more than 20 percent do things on the job they know are wrong, but feel they have to do to keep their jobs. Is that our price? Does a salary buy our blind loyalty and personal integrity? You have to answer for yourself.

A final cautionary note from Lorna Croshaw at North Island College in Port Alberni: “Often, people who blow the whistle on someone’s inappropriate behavior are the ones who are fired, blamed, or questioned. Your reputation as an honest, trustworthy, and loyal employee will be smeared and you will be taunted as a tattletale and office gossip.” She recommends working to introduce strong ethics into the workplace through seminars, corporate mission statements, leadership at the top, and by setting a good personal example.

We all have choices to make. “If you can live with your secret, then by all means do so,” says Carol Harris, a project coordinator in Atlanta. “But if you look in the mirror and don’t like what you see, then you know what you must do.”

Janice Socher CPS, an IAAP Florida Division Officer, says, “No pay increase is worth the price you are paying now, or worse, the price you will have to pay if and when the situation is discovered. I know, because I sold out one time also. I still regret the decision I made and can’t shake the feeling I chose money over principle. If I could turn back the clock, I would simply say ‘no’ and avoid putting myself in a position to be manipulated.

“You must move forward and learn and grow from this experience,” she adds.

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A past international president of IAAP, Nan DeMars CPS is an internationally recognized authority and seminar leader on office ethics. She is president of Executary Services in Minneapolis, MN, and author of You Want Me to do What? When, Where, and How to Draw the Line at Work (Simon & Schuster).

Contact Nan for more information about executary consulting services or seminars