whistleblowers

Colleagues ethically challenged? How to handle it

September 7, 2012: 10:13 AM ET

The number of people reporting workplace misconduct is on the rise, and so is retaliation against them. But you can do the right thing without jeopardizing your career.

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I've never seen this problem addressed in your column before, but I'm hoping you and your readers can give me some pointers. I've been in my current job as a regional department head at a financial services company for about eight months now, and during that time I've repeatedly witnessed instances of less-than-ethical behavior on the part of both my immediate boss (who has been here for about 20 years) and a couple of the people under me.

It seems that some of these practices are just part of the corporate culture here, since no one but me seems to have any objection to them. So far, I've been "going along to get along," basically turning a blind eye, but it's making me uncomfortable. I'd like to take action, but I'm not sure what to do. Reporting the misconduct to higher-ups seems politically unwise, especially since I'm still relatively new here and probably viewed as highly replaceable. Is there any way to blow the whistle without also having to look for another job? — Uneasy

Dear Uneasy: You've picked an interesting moment to ask. As you may know, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced a couple of weeks ago that it will pay out its first-ever bounty of $50,000 -- 30% of the amount collected in an enforcement action, which is the maximum allowed by law -- to an anonymous whistleblower who reported financial wrongdoing. This has raised concerns among employers (maybe even yours) that the prospect of a monetary reward will prompt people to report wrongdoing directly to the SEC, or another government agency like OSHA, without first alerting their bosses.

MORE: Want to achieve something great? Stop working.

Moreover, according to employment law firm Seyfarth Shaw, the number of whistleblower complaints to regulators has been climbing, up about 20% since 2008 -- but the number of cases that have been resolved has stayed flat, rising barely 0.5% over the same period. "Having so many open cases hanging around creates a really awkward situation for employers and employees alike," notes James Curtis, a Seyfarth Shaw partner in Chicago. "The statutes prohibiting retaliation against whistleblowers carry heavy penalties, so companies have to tread very carefully to avoid even the appearance of punishing an employee who has reported misconduct." More

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