Making ethical decisions at work is easy. Speaking up is harder

Speaking up is hard. Going against the grain when the team’s mind is made up is harder. And ‘speaking truth to power’ — especially when ‘power’ means someone who can end your career — is harder still. But speaking up is important. Sometimes, it is absolutely morally required. Other times, it might be strictly optional but is a way to demonstrate true leadership. It’s an important skill, and a commitment worth fostering.

On November 24, the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Program (of which I’m director) had the pleasure of hosting Mary Gentile, a professor at Babson College and author of the book, Giving Voice to Values. The key message of Gentile’s presentation, and of her book, is that the key ethical skill that business students and corporate employees need to foster is not skill at making ethical decisions, but skill at speaking up. Quite often we know the right thing to do, but have trouble doing it. When the boss wants us to fudge the numbers, or when the team decides to go with a plan that involves playing fast-and-loose with ethical obligations to a client, the problem generally isn’t with figuring out what’s right. The challenge lies in finding the right way, in terms of interpersonal and organizational dynamics, to make it happen.

As we’ve seen from the Jian Ghomeshi affair, speaking up isn’t hard only within organizations. But certain facets of organizational life make speaking up especially challenging. Consider, for starters, the emphasis that every organization — every organization — puts on loyalty. That emphasis is a matter of necessity. You can’t have a well-functioning company without employees who feel some level of dedication to the corporate mission, and you can’t even have an effective team if all the members of that team don’t, to some extent, put the interests and goals of the team above their own. From an organizational point of view, a certain amount of group-think is a feature, not a bug. But loyalty can too easily slide into a herd mentality, when people’s brains shut off and they nod their heads out of habit, rather than true agreement. The result can be disastrous.

In her Giving Voice to Values (GVV) curriculum, much of which is available for free online, and which has been adopted by literally hundreds of business schools and corporations across the globe, Gentile emphasizes practical exercises that build participant’s skill and ability to formulate an effective ‘script’ for speaking up, and to deliver it. Importantly, GVV doesn’t start with a list of abstract virtues or principles. It merely starts from the idea that all of us want to do the right thing, and that each of us has, in the past, found ourselves in situations in which we have drawn upon our own values to do the right thing under tough circumstances. GVV encourages each of us to figure out what our own best self is, what our best stories about ourselves are, and to draw upon those stories in moments of need. It’s a very positive message, and an immensely practical one — one that serves to remind us that ethics isn’t about being a saint. It’s about doing our best to be our best selves, given the enormously complex and ethically challenging organizations that we all inhabit.

Chris MacDonald is founding director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management, and founding co-editor of the Business Ethics Journal Review.

2 comments so far

  1. seewhysiu on

    Reblogged this on ethicallysourced and commented:
    A different view that probably 85% of people can relate to in the workplace or life in general. I definitely need to reflect on what my own “best self” is as well and how to tell that story. Hopefully it inspires you to also speak up more (if you aren’t already). If you’ve never met this man also, he’s a great conversationalist on business ethics – also what his blog is about. Have a quick read and see what your thoughts are on this.20252

  2. Tung on

    Thank you, this is a wonderful insight regarding the issue of speaking up – one of the first actions of whistle-blowing, and both of these terms can be interchangeable. In this article, you stated that making an ethical decision is not as difficult as speaking up against another unethical behaviors, and speaking up is very crucial, if not morally required for people, especially leaders. It was also implied that the decision for speaking up relied mostly on his personal integrity rather than the environment. In my opinion, it is a definitely a vital component for a true leader to be able to ensure his or her subordinates that they have their freedom to speak up without fearing the consequences that can steer up to them. However, to say that speaking up, or whistle-blowing is the harder than making an ethical decision is, in my view, rather far-fetched, as speaking up itself is a difficult ethical decision to make, and committing to either of them can be equally difficult. I also think that speaking up is not as important in some school of ethical theory, and the reason behind speaking up can also be because of the environment and not just personal integrity.

    There are various reasons behind the choice of employees to not speak up. Speaking up, or whistle-blowing, especially inside the enterprise can be one sensitive issue. According to Bradshaw (2007), the employees need to feel confident that their concerns expressed through speaking up will be considered carefully and seriously, as well as they should be handled with great sensitivity. When interviewed of the reasons why people refused to commit on whistle-blowing, the most common responses are: that act can cause damage to their career or their relationships with other co-workers. There is another reason, which is the concern of not being taken seriously. In his article, Grenny (2014) claimed that it was more about previous practice, previous examples that have been done in your company that will encourage or discourage the act of speaking up, rather than fear. For example, an employee named Carl has spoken up once about the slacking of some of his fellow co-workers. This leads him to have more experiences in dealing with this situation, making it easier for him to speak up when another, more serious case of a manager doing an unethical activity arises. Hence, it can be concluded that the hesitance in committing an act of whistle blowing is more about the environment that the leaders can create for the employees to be comfortable enough to speak up. Thus, personal integrity, the ability to rise above fears and be brave to blow that whistle is not the only thing that matters, but rather, it is more about the environment surrounding the employees. If the company is encouraging and sensitive in this issue, the employees will be more open towards this, while in contrast, the employees might have to face a lot more difficulties in deciding whether or not he should speak up.

    Another thing I should mention is the fact that the decision of speaking up is a decision of ethics, therefore, it should not be singled out and labeled as something “more difficult”. As mentioned above, one of the reasons why people are hesitant towards speaking up is the concern that no actions will be carried out after they have spoken. Once the employees choose to speak up despite the potential risks for their careers, they are looking forward to an action; therefore, its nature is of no differences than the other ethical decisions, in which the actions also matter. You mentioned that the hardship of speaking up is the fear of going against the crowd; however, it is also the same for other ethical decisions. When the employees decide to commit to ethical behaviors while the others in the company does not follow, he or she faces the same risks of losing his/her job, losing connection, hence, it could not be less difficult than speaking up.

    Lastly, not all theories of normative ethics propose that whistle blowing is the ethical practice that everyone is required to follow. For example, with Utilitarianism, this is defined as “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. Happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure” (Mills, 2012); the act of whistle blowing should be considered its consequences carefully in order to achieve the most happiness for the most people. Sometimes, the act of speaking up can cause more damages than good, even though it is more of a rare case than a constant problem. For example, when we have the information that a husband had a brief affair outside of marriage, should we speak up to the wife with the potential chance of destroying the marriage and everyone affected by it, or should we stay silent since the affair is over? Such moral dilemma can happen in various occasions, and it should be acknowledged.

    Based on the above arguments, I think the decision to speak up should be seriously considered and reviewed, rather than being forced as something “morally required”, and it is, definitely, not harder than making an ethical decision.

    Bradshaw, K. (2007). Speak up procedures. London: IBE.

    Grenny, J. (2014). Research: We Should Speak Up About Ethical Violations More Often. [online] Harvard Business Review. Available at: [Accessed 17 Jan. 2015].

    Mills, J. (2012). Utilitarianism. Raleigh, N.C.: Start Publishing LLC.

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