Most people like to consider themselves honest. So it can be something of a shock when they come to believe their employer is engaging in something less than forthright behavior.
Q: I work for an organization about which I've started to have serious ethical concerns. I think the group's fundraising is at times deliberately misleading and even includes outright falsehoods. I've tried to raise these concerns with the person in charge of this area but just been brushed off. I have a relatively high-level position, and I feel my concerns should be taken seriously, but how? Also, I'm planning to leave this organization as soon as I can, but what can I tell prospective new employers about why I'm leaving without seeming to bad-mouth my current employer?
A: Two professors of business ethics -- John Boatright at Loyola University in Chicago and Patricia Werhane at the University of Virginia -- suggested that the worker needs to closely analyze the claims made by his organization to be certain he has a firm, factual basis before he makes another attempt to get the fundraising pitch changed.
Boatright, executive director of the Society for Business Ethics, rhetorically asked about the fundraising effort: "Who's harmed by this? The main harm is to the contributors giving money for one purpose and it's used for another. What are the falsehoods?"
He compared this worker's situation to that of the Red Cross, which initially earmarked for other purposes some of the money contributed to its fund for victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Under a wave of criticism, the Red Cross changed its mind and said all money would go to the victims' families.
Boatright said the worker should ask the managers whether the current fundraising campaign harms the organization: "Are we undermining our credibility with contributors?" He said the worker should "express concern" rather than attacking the person in charge of the campaign.
Boatright said the worker might have to resort to sending his concerns anonymously to the organization's board. But Werhane suggested the worker marshal his facts and then again approach the fundraising manager. If that fails, he should make his case elsewhere in the organization Werhane said.
"The first thing anyone needs to do is get some data," she said. "As a whistle-blower, you've got to be right.
"Then he can say, 'This is how we're being deceptive.' Spell it out and do it on paper. Explain what is misleading, and say, 'If we continue on this path, we're going to lose donors.' How does this look to people on the outside? People will always find out what's going on -- perhaps the media or a little donor.
"If he's got a good case, people will be likely to listen to him."
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