How to Deal With Tough Ethical Issues When You're Working Abroad
Imagine that you’re working as a teacher at a school abroad, and when you meet with the department chair at the end of the semester, she kindly recommends you adjust your students’ final grades. In short, she wants you to boost the grades so that the school appears more competitive and can increase tuition.
At first, you’re puzzled by this suggestion, then angered. When you refuse to change your students’ grades that they earned fairly, she says your contract will be terminated—but she will give you a raise if you look the other way. So, you threaten to leave. Asserting your righteousness doesn’t matter to her though, because as a foreign school teacher, you are replaceable, and there is no one higher up you can report this kind of ethical breach to. This is simply the way things are done here, and you feel left to fend for yourself.
I hear stories like this time and time again, of professionals having to make difficult ethical decisions while working abroad. In these kinds of settings, it’s not just as easy as saying “when in Rome...”, because you may find yourself having to make choices you never would at home—to engage in things that are unethical or downright corrupt.
So you need to know your boundaries, what you’re OK with, and where to draw the line. Because if you think that no one will find out what happens “over there,” I assure you: These things having a way of resurfacing down the road. They also set a precedent with the people you work with that you can be manipulated and influenced and reinforces a culture of bad business practices.
So what’s a professional abroad supposed to do when entering questionable territory? I’ve received countless emails from expats who feel stuck in situations that just don’t seem quite right—and given lots of advice. Here are a few of the more common ethical challenges abroad and how to try and navigate them.
The Tall Tale
You are working at a startup abroad, and your manager asks you, as a native English speaker, to look over his annual report. As you glance it over, you realize that a lot of the numbers and successes in the report are false—including descriptions of large-scale events and fundraising achievements that are completely fabricated.
How to Deal
For your own benefit and good conscious, you should confront your manager, but in a way that isn’t accusatory—at least at first. Ask politely and professionally, “I was going over this report, and I’m trying to get the context right. Can you jog my memory about when this conference happened, who was there, and the date we met this goal?” Sometimes that may be all it takes to get corrective action. But if fabrications don’t get fixed, be firm and say that you don’t feel right about the inaccuracies in the report.
The sad part is that these types of tall tales are not uncommon. In fact, at one university I visited, there was a joke that people bought their doctorates at the night market. (And upon closer inspection, they really did appear to be night-market PhDs.)
You will have to determine your boundaries, what you will fight for, and what you’ll let slide, but be honest with yourself and know it’s OK to leave if you have to.
Your rural school is having an annual inspection by the education ministry, and as a teacher, you’ve been ordered by your dean to make sure your class appears to be fluent in English. But the reality is that they aren’t, and there are a lot bigger issues the students face, like getting basic education in the local language, having access to school books, and dealing with hunger and other issues at home.
This could be your shot to stand up for the children and let the ministers know how things really are, but if you don’t make things seem perfect, you’ll probably be fired.
How to Deal
This is a tough one, but you have to decide what you’re willing to fight for. While the annual inspection is not the best time to let your class slack, it’s also not fair to portray everything as perfect.
Try networking with the ministry officials while they’re there and schedule a meeting to express your concerns—but frame it as a culture exchange (to learn from each other) instead of a confrontation. Or, determine who might actually listen and have influence over these issues, reach out to him or her, and schedule a time outside of school hours to offer your honest input and feedback.
Unfortunately, many times, very little is done and appearances and photo ops continue while bigger issues get overlooked. The likely reality is you will be most helpful simply by teaching, but won’t be able to change a thing in the system. You will need to decide if you're OK with this.
Schemes and Set Ups
You’re volunteering at an orphanage for a few weeks where many foreigners come for a day to play with the kids, when you start to notice something unexpected—the children actually have parents, and they stop by every week to pick up a paycheck from the head of the organization. The kids are instructed to tell stories about their hardship, winning the hearts of the short-term volunteers, while the parents collect money for allowing their kids to stay there. Meanwhile, the donations from foreign agencies and individuals are rolling in, and everyone believes their money is going to a good cause.
How to Deal
I wish I could say this wasn’t the case, but these kinds of schemes happen in the development world way more often than you may think.
When you discover this information, you have a choice: Go public or stay silent. Be aware that there is tremendous risk in both (e.g., if you voice your concerns with the owner of the orphanage, he or she may feel threatened and react harshly; if you tell donors right away, they may be skeptical or find it hard to believe), but you must do what you feel is right.
If you don’t directly raise your concerns, you can share your experience and warning in another way. Many of my colleagues who have found themselves in this kind of situation, for example, have gone on social media to share their experience, write articles, or notify local authorities (who may or may not take action) or regional leaders in the development sector. The surprising part is, you might find that people already knew this was happening, and just didn’t do anything about it—and there is rarely a quick fix.
The All-Night Bender
You’re working abroad, your colleagues invite you out to a huge after-work party, and they’re really hitting the bottle service. And why not—work hard, play hard, right? Plus, you’ve heard that plenty of business and professional outings abroad involve partying all night, showering at the bar (yes, there are actually bars with changing rooms and showers in certain parts of the world), and then powering through work the next day. But in reality, you can’t keep up with your colleagues, and you’re already wondering how you will function at work the next day.
The night carries on, and you continue bar-hopping with your colleagues until you end up at a place called “Spicy”—an establishment that’s exactly as shady as it sounds—and your colleagues are already Instagramming every crazy moment at the club.
How to Deal
It’s totally OK to be social, but be smart and bow out when you start to feel like it might impact your work (or cross your personal boundaries). No one will be offended if you duck out early, and your social bonds and professional relationships won't be affected.
What always struck me in international settings was how many people were willing to go to places and do things they would never do at home—even if it was out of line. As an expat, there can often be a blurred line between professional and personal, but just keep in mind, if you wouldn't do it in the United States, don’t do it abroad. I’ve seen people lose their jobs for much less.
We often talk about how great it is to work abroad, but never venture into some of the really difficult ethical challenges that we face in the field. As an outsider, you run the chance of not seeming to adapt to the culture—or adapting too much, so that you begin to accept things that are simply not OK. And without a proper HR department or a superior to confide in, the situation can be even more frustrating. You have to know your comfort zone and where to draw the line.
Bottom line: If you find yourself in one of these scenarios, trust your gut and don’t be afraid to do what you feel is right.
Photo of man thinking courtesy of Shutterstock.
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author