keeping your colleagues honest GENTILE HBR 1 Essay examples

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CASE STUDY 121
As an emergency
unfolds outside the
office, a CEO must
make a split-second
decision.

RECOMMENDED 128
A manufacturing
company keeps up
its decades-old nolayoff policy, despite
the Great Recession.

LIFE’S WORK 132
American sculptor
Richard Serra
on innovating,
collaborating, and
learning to take
criticism.

Experience
Managing Your Professional Growth hbr.org

MANAGING YOURSELF

Keeping Your Colleagues Honest

J

onathan has a new job. Just promoted from the accounting group
at headquarters, he is now the
controller for a regional sales unit of a
consumer electronics company. He is
excited about this step up and wants to
build a good relationship with his new
team. However, when the quarterly
numbers come due, he realizes that the
next quarter’s sales are being reported
early to boost bonus compensation. The
group manager’s silence suggests that
this sort of thing has probably happened
before. Having dealt with such distortion

when he sat in corporate, Jonathan is
fully aware of its potential to cause major
damage. But this is his first time working
with people who are creating the problem
instead of those who are trying to fix it.
This may seem like a mundane accounting matter. But the consequences—
in terms of carrying costs, distorted forecasting, compromised ethical culture,
and even legal ramifications—are very
serious. And except in extraordinarily
well-run corporations, this kind of situation can arise easily. All managers should
know how to respond constructively

Many Excuses for Silence
When a manager encounters an ethical
problem, chances are he’ll also hear—
or tell himself—one of four classic rationalizations for keeping silent.
It’s standard practice. Jonathan will
probably encounter this excuse when
he questions his group’s quarterly sales
report. Though this kind of distortion is
common, that does not diminish the costs
it can trigger, the fact it is unethical, or
the dangerous ripple effects it can have
on the business down the road.

ILLUSTRATION: KIM ROSEN

How to challenge unethical behavior at work—and prevail
by Mary C. Gentile

(indeed, learning to do so is a key piece
of their professional development), and
senior managers must be able to change
the cultural norms that gave rise to bad
judgment in the first place.
Over the past four years, I have studied
the moments when people decide
whether to speak up about an ethical
issue, and what they say when they do.
I’ve collected stories from managers at
all levels, with a particular focus on the
earlier years in careers and on individuals
who have positive stories to tell. These
stories—along with the social-psychology
research on decision making—shed light
on what enables people to be candid
when they encounter ethical conflicts
in the workplace. The insights I describe
here can help younger managers raise
their voices when they should and help
senior managers build a strong, honest
organizational culture.

114 Harvard Business Review March 2010

1012 Mar10 Gentile.indd 114

1/28/10 2:07:07 PM

HBR.ORG

FOR FURTHER READING

Cognitive Biases in
Decision Making
It’s not a big deal. When Maureen,
a product-engineering manager at a
computer systems company, learned
that her group’s single-wipe process for
reconfiguring hard drives was failing 5%
of the time, she knew that some customers would end up with a reconditioned
machine that still contained the previous
owner’s information. But her colleagues
argued that no one had complained, that
it was unlikely to cause a problem anyway,
and that no one wanted to take on the
cost of resolving the issue in a time of
budget cuts.
It’s not my responsibility. You or your
colleagues may be tempted to say that
you’re too new in the job to chime in,
that you don’t have the authority, or that
you’re not the expert. Junior employees
often get this message from others—but,
I was surprised to discover, so do senior
executives. For example, Denise, a senior
vice president and the COO at a regional
hospital, had a…