How Do You Foster Courageously Proactive Employees?

Employees need guidance and training when it comes to reporting workplace ethics violations.

Generation Z is the least likely in the workplace to report misconduct, according to a new report from Ethisphere Institute, which Michael Grothaus synthesized in Fast Company.

According to the survey, 38.9 percent of Gen Z respondents said they did not report misconduct when they observed it, despite their professed willingness to report it. That compares with 31.8 percent of Millennials who did not report observed misconduct and 27.6 percent of both Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, Grothaus reports.

Conflict Avoidance

That makes me wonder why. A hypothesis I have is that there is a greater timidity among many of the youngest employees in the workplace. In a past Training Day post, I noted the tendency of many young people to express every sentence like it’s a question, with their voice rising at the end. It seems as though many young people are afraid to make a firm declarative statement. The younger the employee is, the greater the series of checks and needs for approval the person likely experienced in childhood. Parents who carefully structured and monitored activities to curb time spent daydreaming or playing independently, along with a belief that we do not live in a zero-sum world—i.e. we can all be winners—might lead a person to be hesitant about engaging in conflict, even when it’s warranted.

I can understand this, even though I’m of an older generation, Generation X. I have long-term annoyances with a neighbor that just recently, after a full 17 years, reached a point where I had an angry, totally honest confrontation about them. I don’t know how, or if, the dispute will be resolved, but I do know I dreaded this confrontation so much that I put it off until I had no choice and couldn’t take it anymore.

Go Straight to HR?

In the workplace, how do you train employees to have a proactive and courageous mindset about confronting ethically questionable colleagues or managers? You can train them to go straight to Human Resources, but to create an ethical company, the first line of defense is one employee pointing out to a colleague, or manager, that an action they are taking is questionable. Employees could be trained on the approach of treating these conversations as questions—similar to the tendency of turning every sentence into a question. “Bob, I noticed something I wanted to ask you about. It seemed like you gave information to one of our business partners who is bidding on a contract with us that you didn’t give to the others. Am I correct about that, or am I misunderstanding what’s happening?”

If Bob confirms that’s what he did because he wants one business partner to have a contract over another because of a personal relationship with one partner over the other, then: “Does that align with our ethics policies? I thought I remembered that personal relationships with people who work for companies seeking contracts with us need to be disclosed, and that if you had that relationship, you would not participate in the selection of the winning bid. Is that how you remember that ethics policy?”

“Yeah, I remember,” Bob then may nonchalantly respond. “Technically, that’s what you’re supposed to do, but it happens all the time. You give contracts to your friends. You do things for your friends.”

The employee with ethics concerns then knows they gave their colleague a chance to explain, the colleague was unable to justify their actions, and, therefore, at that point, it should be reported to Human Resources. The question becomes whether the employee wants to let their colleague know they will be going to Human Resources to report the ethics violation. The colleague will figure it out anyway, so at that point: “Bob, I hate to have to do this, but I’m going to have to report this to Human Resources. This is a huge violation of our code of ethics. It isn’t fair to the other companies submitting bids, and it might come back to hurt us from a business perspective because we won’t necessarily be choosing the best bid now that you’ve given an edge to one company over the others. We can’t have a true and fair vetting process now.”

This is an uncomfortable conversation to have, but it can stop unethical behavior at the front lines, rather than reflexively kicking it up to Human Resources, which enforces the code of ethics but is not involved with day-to-day work like a colleague is.

Resolution Recommendations

What should training recommend when it comes to employees being courageous and proactive in their reporting of ethics violations? Is it to do nothing themselves, and, instead, take the issue straight to Human Resources? Or is to try to have a conversation first with their peer to see if the issue can be resolved within their own work group?

I have never notified my landlord about the annoyances I have been experiencing with my neighbor. I have repeatedly tried to handle it directly myself. Am I doing the right thing? At least now I know that if I take it to the landlord, I will have given my neighbor the chance first to address the problems.