Worked Up At Work

How to handle sticky office situations

Ethics and Trust: Some Lines Can’t Be Crossed

When these warning signs occur, they shouldn't be ignored.

There are some thresholds that just shouldn’t be crossed.  They are like tripwires that you can't see but, when you cross, it will take you down. One such threshold is that of ethics. Once someone crosses an ethical line, in my opinion, they should be jettisoned.

I have a client who hired a marketing and sales director away from a competitor. His first week on the job, he produced “intelligence” in the form of confidential information from his previous employer.  In my opinion, he crossed the threshold and should have been terminated.  Instead, the employer told the new employee in clear and unequivocal language to get rid of that information and not use it. They saw this as an intermediate but effective step, rather than the Draconian step of termination. 

During the course of the next two years, this individual did many things that were ethically questionable, like playing favorites with some of the staff and undermining others who were not his favorites. There were also things that this individual had done that caused his supervisors to finally decide to get rid of him.

In the end, he sensed that he might be fired and did a clandestine data dump.  Basically, he downloaded a large quantity of confidential information from his current employer’s database on customers and confidential proprietary information. And then, when the termination came up, he used that information as a weapon to increase his severance package.

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The old adage of the best predictor of future performance is past performance rings very true.  The current employer should have terminated him when he first demonstrated his inclination to behave unethically by bringing in stolen confidential information from his previous employer.  They would've avoided the headache and all the cleanup associated with the unethical behavior he exhibited while on the job and then at the end.  Instead, they took the second path of least resistance—to roll their eyes and then reprimand. 

The path of least resistance (plan A) would have been to take the information and use it. Instead, they took plan B as I indicated. Plan C should have been to recognize that this behavior was outside the bounds of ethical performance, outside of our values, counted themselves lucky that the revelation (that this new hire wasn’t a good fit) came early and dropped the hammer and moved on. They didn't, and they paid the price over and over again. 

When ethical misconduct occurs, I recommend to my clients that they draw a red line in the sand, hold to their values and distance themselves from those who don't meet the ethical standards.  Harsh I know, but high standards are high standards and should be consistently upheld.

Steve M. Cohen, Ed.D., C.M.C., is the president of Labor Management Advisory Group and HR Solutions: On-Call, and the author of Mess Management: Lessons From a Corporate Hit Man.

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