Dear Crucial Skills,
Here’s my struggle: I work for a very well respected company that prides itself on doing the right thing, always having integrity, etc. I recently discovered that one of the HR employee conference rooms has a hidden video camera. The vast majority of employees who meet with the HR staff in this room are not aware of this. I find it ironic that the company projects an image of integrity and openness, then equips a room like this without letting anyone know they could be videotaped at any time.
So, I am wondering, what is this the “right thing” for me to do?
Most companies today have statements of values, ethical conduct, etc. And yet when you survey most employees, they report that these statements carry about as much weight in day-to-day conduct as the ink on the statement itself.
So I’m glad you asked this question. I’m glad for two reasons: 1) Because it gives us a chance to talk about what truly makes a company ethical; and 2) Because your very question demonstrates that you are willing to be part of the solution in your own company.
First, let me debunk a myth about ethics. Ethical companies are not created by rolling out compulsory “Ethics Training” so that everyone is aware of the standards expected of them. Everyone does this. And it tends to accomplish little more than reducing the company’s liability when an employee sells out. So how, then, do you create a culture that strongly influences people to behave ethically? By creating a culture where people hold crucial confrontations with those who violate standards. Or even better, where people will challenge others when they even begin moving into gray areas.
By this principle, Enron was not the story of a few bad apples at the top of the pyramid. Enron could not have happened had there not been hundreds and even thousands of “good” people who stood by and said nothing when illegal practices were just beginning. It is at these moments that a company’s soul is at risk—not when the later egregious errors emerge. And if the culture is one where no one wants to offend, risk a confrontation, look naive, or seem “holier than thou”—the end result is inevitable. The culture will change—for the worse.
So, my second point is that the very fact that you are asking how to handle this crucial confrontation gives me hope for the character of your company. If you find a way to tactfully, respectfully, and directly raise the perceived concern, you will provide others with an opportunity to examine the ethics of the situation. If you do it poorly—accusingly or self-righteously—you will likely provoke defensiveness that will shortcut others’ reflection on the ethical issue.
My advice for you as you open this issue is that you a) do it with the right person, and b) do it in the right way.
First, ensure you are meeting with someone who has influence over HR policy. If you want to have influence, hold the conversation with someone who has influence. And preferably someone who has a reputation for openness—why make your crucial confrontation any harder than it has to be?
Second, be sure to lead with the facts and not your story. You have drawn some conclusions that may or may not be correct. It is these that you are there to check out and discuss. For example, it may just be a story rather than a fact that:
- There are, in fact, cameras.
- The room is used by those who don’t know there are cameras.
- The cameras are functional and videotape those who are unaware of it.
- The HR staff is intentionally hiding the fact that there are cameras.
So, as you lay out your concerns, strip out any “hot words” that sound accusatory or self-righteous and simply describe what you think is happening, why you think it could reflect badly on the company, and then invite the other party to confirm or disconfirm your assertions. Be open to other points of view—including other interests that are served by current practices that you do not understand or appreciate at present.
Finally, make sure they understand not just your content (the issue you want to raise), but also your intent (you care about the company and want to be part of helping it live up to its aspirations).
Good luck—and thanks for standing up for what your company is capable of becoming.