What to Do If You Spot Unethical Activity in the Workplace

Posted on 07.23.2015

The integrity of a company is typically one of the most important factors in its long-term success. Most companies do strive to have a culture of ethical and honest behavior, but there may be situations from time to time where you, as an Executive Assistant, may encounter unethical behavior—or possibly even illegal behavior—in the workforce. These situations are absolutely uncomfortable, but we hope these tips help you handle it in the best way for a positive outcome.

Decide if the behavior is actually unethical.

Before you go all Watergate whistleblower on your coworker(s), it’s important to ensure you are raising alarms for valid reasons. Most employers will provide you with an employee handbook. Read through that carefully to determine if the behavior violates company policy.  There’s a big difference between swiping a pen and defrauding company investors. Remember, personal feelings may taint your opinion of the situation, so take a step back and do research from all angles. Don’t go public with the information until you have concrete evidence of unethical or illegal behavior.

Don’t gossip.

Never ever share your opinions about the behavior with your co-workers, whether it is found to be ethical or unethical. Gossiping about possible unethical behavior diminishes everybody’s credibility—including your own. This does not reflect well on you or the company. If you are incorrect about the behavior, unfounded accusations can harm that person’s reputation. Many a workplace lawsuit has begun with “innocent” gossip. Don’t do it!


When you see something you perceive to be unethical, make sure to ask questions. More often than not, it’s a simple misunderstanding and what you’re observing is perfectly reasonable. Give your co-workers the benefit of the doubt until you can confirm the behavior is definitely unethical. When asking your questions, keep them conversational. People generally pick up on an accusatory tone and respond defensively. Remember, don’t make unfounded accusations.


If the behavior is confirmed to be unethical, the next step is documentation. Take note of when you see the behavior, who’s involved, and what the behavior is. Locate paperwork, if there is any, which proves evidence of the behavior. Make two copies of all your documentation—one for your personal records and one that accompanies your statement to Human Resources.

File a report, if necessary.

If the behavior is harming the company, filing a report is the next step. Keep in mind, when filing a report about unethical behavior, your personal ethics must be irreproachable. Consult your Human Resources department to determine the process for filing a report.  Keep your emotions out of the report and don’t exaggerate. Simply report the facts and provide your evidence. Once it is in the hands of Human Resources, let it go. Do not discuss it with coworkers. Human Resources will take appropriate action.

We hope these tips help to make an unpleasant situation a little more bearable. Again, it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll ever see unethical or illegal behavior, but it’s best to be prepared if you do.