Workplace malpractice is any behavior related to job performance that deviates from standards, procedures, or reasonable expectations of the employer. For example, it would be workplace malpractice for a market researcher to intentionally include fabricated data in a report assessing the positions of potential competitors. I've explored workplace malpractice in previous issues — see "Counterproductive Knowledge Work Behavior," Point Lookout for September 21, 2016, for examples.
Several readers have expressed interest in the risks of reporting workplace malpractice. They ask, "If I've witnessed an incident or a pattern of workplace malpractice, what should I do?" There's no general answer. But if you're considering making a report, be alert to the risks. Below are some of those risks.
- Failure-to-report risk
- If you choose not to report what you know, you could be in trouble if people in authority learn that you knew what was happening and didn't report it. If one or more of the risks below seem substantial, and you feel unsafe making a report, consider reporting instead that you have information, but you don't feel safe reporting it. That might afford some protection against failure-to-report charges, and it might motivate your employer to address the safety issue.
- Confidentiality issues in the reporting process
- Most misconduct At work, there is no
such thing as a witness
protection programreport management processes do promise confidentiality to those who report misconduct. The best programs offer an anonymous tip line. If your employer doesn't provide an anonymous tip line, confidentiality can sometimes be breached. Be prepared for possible retaliation. In most workplaces, there is no witness protection program.
- Are you certain that you're interpreting correctly whatever you've witnessed? Are alternative interpretations plausible? If alternatives are plausible, your report might be inaccurate, and potentially damaging to you. If the alternatives are plausible, they can also provide you with valid explanations for failing to report what you witnessed: "Yes, I knew about that, but it seemed OK to me because I thought it was X."
- Misidentifying the real perpetrator
- The perpetrator of the malpractice might have been acting under instructions of a superior. If so, your report could affect that superior, who might be powerful enough to mitigate the effects of your report, and vengeful enough to seek retaliation.
- Invalid evidence
- Did you actually witness the incident? Or are you inferring malpractice based on contextual evidence? If the latter, might someone inquire about your failure to report that earlier contextual evidence? If not, report the incident anyway if you feel safe enough. If you have any doubts about your safety, see the comment above about failure-to-report risk.
- Witness testing
- At times, an incident you witnessed might have been conducted in your view solely to determine whether you could be trusted not to report it. The probability of this scenario is elevated if the "test infraction" is minor, or if you were asked in advance to be present, and asked afterwards to be silent. If you suspect "witness testing," you're working amongst sophisticated operators. How long you will remain safe, even if you cooperate, is difficult to predict.
At whatever level you estimate the risks of reporting malpractice, those risks are mitigated to some extent by hard evidence. Documents, recordings, photos, your journals, or records of any kind — anything you have that can corroborate your report. Collecting this kind of evidence might bear risks of its own, so take care. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Ethics at Work:
- Some Things I've Learned Along the Way
- When I have an important insight, I write it down in a little notebook. Here are some items from my
- The Attributes of Political Opportunity: The Finer Points
- Opportunities come along even in tough times. But in tough times like these, it's especially important
to sniff out true opportunities and avoid high-risk adventures. Here are some of the finer points to
assist you in your detective work.
- Personnel-Sensitive Risks: I
- Some risks and the plans for managing them are personnel-sensitive in the sense that disclosure can
harm the enterprise or its people. Since most risk management plans are available to a broad internal
audience, personnel-sensitive risks cannot be managed in the customary way. Why not?
- Personnel-Sensitive Risks: II
- Personnel-sensitive risks are risks that are difficult to discuss openly. Open discussion could infringe
on someone's privacy, or lead to hurt feelings, or to toxic politics or toxic conflict. If we can't
discuss them openly, how can we deal with them?
- Counterproductive Knowledge Work Behavior
- With the emergence of knowledge-oriented workplaces, counterproductive work behavior is taking on new
forms that are rare or inherently impossible in workplaces where knowledge plays a less central role.
Here are some examples.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
- A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
- And on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
- Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.