Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 18, Issue 2;   January 10, 2018: On Reporting Workplace Malpractice

On Reporting Workplace Malpractice

by

Last updated: December 16, 2019

Reporting workplace malpractice can be the right thing to do. And it's often career-dangerous. Here are some risks to ponder before reporting what you know.
Tree rings, "documentary" evidence of past environmental conditions

Tree rings, "documentary" evidence of past environmental conditions. Hard evidence of what you're reporting can mitigate the risks of reporting workplace malpractice.

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 program
report 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.
Misinterpretation
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. Go to top Top  Next issue: High Falutin' Goofy Talk: II  Next Issue

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More articles on Ethics at Work:

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If your boss is truly incompetent, or maybe even evil, organizing a coup d'etat might have crossed your mind. In most cases, it's wise to let it cross on through, all the way. Think of alternative ways out.
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Extended interviews provide multiple opportunities for detecting lies by people intent on deception. Here's Part IV of our little collection of lie detection techniques.
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See also Ethics at Work and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Franz Halder, German general and the chief of staff of the Army High Command (OKH) in Nazi Germany from 1938 until September 1942Coming June 3: Capability Inversions and the Dunning-Kruger Effect
A capability inversion occurs when the person in charge of an effort is far less knowledgeable about the work involved or its purpose than are the people doing that work. In capability inversions, the Dunning-Kruger effect can intensify group dysfunction, sometimes severely disrupting the effort. Available here and by RSS on June 3.
Kitty Genovese, in a mug shot created by the Queens, New York, police department after her arrest on a bookmaking charge in 1961And on June 10: They Don't Reply to My Email
Ever have the experience of sending an email message to someone, asking for information or approval or whatever, and then waiting for a response that comes only too late? Maybe your correspondent is an evil loser, but maybe not. Maybe the problem is in your message. Available here and by RSS on June 10.

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