Some workplace settings are cutthroat. Ideas are stolen, people take credit for work that’s not theirs, employees take advantage of the system for their own personal gain — sometimes people even steal co-workers’ lunches. On top of the demands of one’s actual job, dealing with unethical co-workers can make work truly unbearable. So what’s a hard-working woman trying to climb the latter and maintain inner peace to do? Well, for starters, is good to remember the office is just a microcosm of society as a whole.
“Fact is, the workplace will always feature people with a lack of integrity, because there will always be people who are struggling to find their way—and that’s really what a lack of integrity is,” The Muse put it simply.
The good thing is while unethical co-workers might be tricky, they are easy to spot. “They tell on themselves,” said career coach Chantay Bridges. “Conference calls, team meetings or department get-togethers, they are always the first person to throw the entire group under the bus. They will make a purpose to communicate negative issues, responding to and answering questions that were never even asked. They simply do not do their jobs!”
Jennifer Hancock of Humanist Learning Systems, further explained, “If they lie about anything, they are unethical. If they steal, they are unethical. If they spread rumors about other people, they are unethical. If they bully, they are unethical. If they don’t take responsibility for their actions, they are unethical. And, in all cases, they are also unprofessional.”
The trouble is you are professional and you still have a job to do. So how do you do it in spite of unethical team members? “Try not to take them too serious,” advised Bridges. “Avoid them when you can and never get involved with their shenanigans, especially when it involves other co-workers. Take what they say with a grain of salt, never make decisions based on what they communicate, realize their opinion is tainted and questionable.”
Of course, you should also keep your distance to protect your own professional reputation. “Once you know there’s a snake in the room, work with caution. Be courteous yet keep your antennas up and be wise. Never confide in this person and never pick up their ways,” Bridges added.
But is there ever a time you should escalate your concerns? Our experts are torn. One school of thought is you should mind your own business and concentrate on your own work. The other school of thought is that one bad apple really does spoil the whole bunch and an unethical worker could reflect poorly on other employees and the company as a whole. According to Bridges, “When a person is truly unethical there is no need to be the one to rat them out. Their dirty deeds will eventually shine like a light bulb [so there is] no need to get involved. Once you get involved, depending on who is responding to it, things can get turned around and you look like the culprit. It’s best to let your supervisor or management handle it.”
But Hancock pointed out there are some instances where you need to speak out; however you must tread lightly. “If something is wrong and you know it is wrong, then you need to not tolerate the behavior. If you are a boss, do something about it. If you are a worker and the unethical person is your boss, you may need to find another job. In the meantime, don’t break any laws just because your boss asks you to and make sure to document everything that is happening so you can not only cover your a– but also, perhaps, help internal affairs or whatever group oversees compliance issues or legal enforcement have what they need to take corrective action. In other words, keep your head down, but document what needs to be documented so you can be a whistleblower.”
Regardless of the route you take, you don’t want to come off as pious. “You’re absolutely right to talk to a manager or raise [concerns] with the individual involved if you see something dishonest in an organization that professes to value honesty. Be sure to suggest a different, better approach in your team meetings if you observe something unethical that’s becoming the norm. Or lay out how someone’s toxic behavior may be impacting others if you see someone operating with a lack of respect; even let the person know that a different standard of behavior is necessary for everyone to do great work,” reported The Muse. “This doesn’t mean being a tattletale; it means demonstrating courage and asking for a better way. It doesn’t mean resorting to condescension; it means striving for openness and discussion. It doesn’t mean adopting the attitude of a judge, but it does mean expecting a baseline of behavior that’s founded on respect.”
Remember, if you speak out and tell on a fellow worker, you will make yourself vulnerable — and if it’s a situation involving your boss, you could be fired. Nevertheless, doing the right thing isn’t always easy, but it is satisfying.