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Office workers (Paul Vasarhelyi)
Office workers (Paul Vasarhelyi)

Work ethics

Are you working for an unethical firm? Then run Add to ...

Options? You have none. Well, you have one, which thus isn’t really an “option,” in the sense that there need to be at least two for you to be able to choose one over the other(s).

Get out. The faster the better. If you’re reading this at your work computer and think it applies to you, take an early lunch and don’t return. Even in an economy in which 8.5 per cent of would-be workers are sitting at home idle, that still means that a towering 91.5 per cent majority of people are working. Jobs exist, and even spending a couple of weeks looking for employment is a far better prospect than enduring the taint of working for a company without the baseline amount of scruples.

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Just following orders

Some unethical firms are merely opportunistic and will plead ignorance if caught. There’s an organization that once sent my company an invoice with a $47,000 overcharge. The organization’s notoriously repugnant owner knew full well that our sponsorship contract had expired, but invoiced us in the hopes that someone other than our CEO would get the bill and pay it without question.

Our CEO called the organization’s accounts receivable manager, who briefly pleaded the organization’s lack of a case, before retracting and claiming that the invoice had been sent in error. She might have been only following orders, but we’ll forever remember her as the woman who would have unapologetically received money stolen from us. We can surmise that we weren’t the only sponsor the organization attempted this tactic with. In a LinkedIn society, in which millions of people’s work histories are easy to view, this woman’s best hope is to stay with that organization until retirement.

Of course, other firms go well beyond soliciting unearned money, incorporating fraud and theft into their business models. Operating defensively, many employees will go along for the ride simply because the paycheques haven’t bounced yet. The workers justify the positives of the job (“they let us wear Hawaiian shirts one Friday a month”), without giving a thought to the long-term damage and potential liability that accrue from being in the employ of a dishonourable firm.

Recommending that you quit isn’t merely an appeal to your conscience. It’s good for your career, too.

Here’s an example of institutional criminal activity that transcends sending false invoices, and there are hundreds across the nation that are similar to this one:

Las Vegas real estate

Las Vegas is the epicentre of the real estate crisis that touched down on our shores four years ago, and shows no signs of abating. In short order, the town went from America’s most overvalued market to one of its most undervalued. With fewer houses being sold, and those for lower prices, builders needed to find new revenue streams. Who better to tap than existing homeowners, under threat of fines and assessments?

Multiple homeowners’ associations throughout the metropolitan area consolidated their power, hiring management companies that, in turn, would sue for (false) construction defects, authorize bogus emergency repair work and litigate just for the fun of it.

The “masterminds” of this operation, such as they were, face criminal charges, but their malleable underlings are in even greater trouble. Case in point, a 24-year-old secretary whose employers ordered her to perform such seemingly trivial tasks as creating false telephone surveys and acting as a straw purchaser. On the surface, neither activity might sound like that big of a deal, but the U.S. Department of Justice thinks otherwise. Mail fraud carries a 30-year sentence.

The bottom line

Employees who make barely enough to keep gas in their cars and roofs over their heads, can succumb to the pressure of doing their crooked bosses’ bidding. And for what? An honest secretary would have washed her hands of the situation at a minimum, quitting on the spot, if not gone to authorities and availed them of any criminal activity. Refusing to do so, or even collecting cheques from an unprincipled employer one second longer than necessary, is just inviting trouble.

It’s easy to say this with the benefit of hindsight, but it wouldn’t have been much harder to say it at the time: working in an unethical culture leads to being expected to actively participate in, and further, that culture. An employee’s expendability has no correlation with her ability to avoid guilt.

Disreputable companies rarely escape punishment. Mental shorthand reduces their stories to names that incorporate the company name itself: the Phar-Mor Scandal; the Arthur Andersen Controversy; the Global Crossing Affair. Anyone even remotely associated with the offending party has to spend less time showcasing his or her skills and more time explaining away their tenure with said company.

At its peak, Enron had 22,000 employees. How many of them do you think list that particular firm on their résumés today?

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