Your Honest Guide to Working With Unethical People You Don't Trust
Once, long ago, I worked at a rapidly growing tech company. For all intents and purposes, the organization was nailing it, sending consultants out all over the country to work with organizations on problem-solving tech-related issues. All sounds great, right? It only took a few months for me to begin noticing things I was far from comfortable with.
Client projects would be scoped to leave out key pieces of the solution, so that when the company delivered work the client would then need to re-engage us to deliver the chunks that were missing originally.
It seemed to be an unspoken sales tactic, but whatever it was, it smacked wholly of dishonesty and a distinct lack of respect for the client and the employees.
In your company, maybe you’ve seen some similar shady underminings. Maybe you’ve seen someone “fix up” a report so that it reads better for the C-suite or for investors. Maybe you’ve overheard a manager using personal attacks to get people in line. Or maybe you’ve seen a married colleague in an affair with another co-worker.
Which brings us to the idea of integrity.
Researcher and author Brené Brown defines it like this:
“Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them.”
Hits the nail on the head, doesn’t it? I know you know integrity when you see it. But what do you do if you find yourself working with someone who lacks it? Here are three ways to deal:
1. Own Your Story
When you see someone do something that, in your eyes, lacks integrity, it’s easy to leap straight to judgment.
The leaders of that company I described above? I told myself they were awful people of the worst order, and that they had zero right to be running a company. Watch people manipulate facts or just make something up as part of their work? You might tell yourself that they’re fundamentally dishonest and be convinced that it’s inevitably all going to unravel. If you discover two co-workers carrying on an extramarital affair, you might be disgusted and wonder how they can live with themselves.
Your brain weaves a narrative that puts you in the right and others squarely in the wrong, and that’s the story you tell yourself.
They’re wrong. They’re bad. You’d never do something like that, so you’re right and good.
You’ve heard it before, but it’s worth repeating: No one’s perfect. And your story may not even be the whole story. It rarely is. Instead of letting your assumptions drive the narrative, take what you know to be true and see if you can take a step back to assess untapped feelings of your own. When you notice yourself leaping to conclusions, getting fired up, or labeling people as wrong (and yourself as right), think about these three questions:
- What story are you creating? Take a hard look at what emotions are getting stirred up and the story you’re wrapping around them, even if—especially if—it makes you uncomfortable.
- What if you let go of that story and the drama?
- What might happen if you took a more generous point of view?
Shedding light on these questions can help take your focus out of the drama and avoid the blame game. Sometimes, in doing that, you can learn something insightful about yourself.
2. Plant Your Feet
When someone you work with displays a clear lack of integrity, some common options include:
- Sucking it way down deep and pretending like you never saw anything.
- Instigating a fight. How dare they?
- Dropping a trail of insipid little breadcrumbs that you hope will blow the lid off it all.
It’s hard to know what to do in the face of someone whose character you find questionable, but a more fitting response to a lack of integrity is to honor the boundaries of your own integrity.
This comes down to what you’re willing and able to compromise on, and what you’re not. If being complicit in something untoward makes your skin crawl, then understand that planting your feet and saying that you can’t be part of it is the right thing for you. If the thought of watching a continuing unethical practice goes totally against what you believe, then know that privately voicing your discomfort to a manager will be the right thing to do.
Or if doing nothing while seeing a close colleague fall deeper into an illicit relationship flies in the face of what friendship and support mean to you, then offering a friendly ear may be entirely appropriate. On the other hand, if you aren’t close enough to offer support, then perhaps your boundary of friendship will tell you not to meddle or make things more complicated.
When you recognize the values that are in your bones. those things that matter most to you, you’ll know in your gut what you need to do. What are the things that matter to you most, the things that would turn you into someone you didn’t like or respect?
There’s no purpose in being pious or self-righteous about this stuff, but when a lack of integrity is impacting your day to day, at the very least, you owe it yourself to respond based on your own boundaries and strength of character.
3. Professionalism Doesn’t Preclude Honesty
When faced with a situation that’s less than squeaky clean, professionalism might suggest that you keep your head down and stay focused on the job. Don’t rock the boat. Steer clear. Stay out of it.
That makes some sense. The workplace isn’t a social club or a family unit, it’s a place of work, a place where results trump personal preferences.
But these days, we all know that an organization works best when the people inside it work together with shared values and vision. When the people in a workplace choose comfort over courage, when they choose what’s fast or easy over what’s right and when they profess values instead of actually practicing them, the organization is doomed.
The notion of professionalism as “keeping your head down” or “towing the party line” is dead. In today’s world, professionalism demands that you act honestly and courageously when you see something that lacks integrity.
You’re absolutely right to talk to a manager or raise it with the individual involved if you see something dishonest in an organization that professes to value honesty. Be sure to suggest a different, better approach in your team meetings if you observe something unethical that’s becoming the norm. Or lay out how someone’s toxic behavior may be impacting others if you see someone operating with a lack of respect; even let the person know that a different standard of behavior is necessary for everyone to do great work.
This doesn’t mean being a tattletale; it means demonstrating courage and asking for a better way. It doesn’t mean resorting to condescension; it means striving for openness and discussion. It doesn’t mean adopting the attitude of a judge, but it does mean expecting a baseline of behavior that’s founded on respect.
Speaking up requires courage, of course. It demands you make yourself vulnerable. That’s something that will always feel uncomfortable, but if it also feels right, then you’re on the correct path.
Fact is, the workplace will always feature people with a lack of integrity, because there will always be people who are struggling to find their way—and that’s really what a lack of integrity is.
Perhaps the only way to work with people like this is to work with them from integrity.
It always starts with you. But ultimately, if you still feel compromised or if your performance suffers after you’ve found the courage to honor your own values and integrity, then it may well be time to use that integrity of yours once more, and start looking for a new job.