Ethics & Insights

By: George Lober

Let me offer the outline of a very general but common case study. A subordinate witnesses a peer, or a superior, doing something that is patently wrong. The wrong being committed is a prosecutable act. Maybe it's the embezzlement of funds, or maybe it's an ongoing pattern of fraud from which the perpetrator has profited. Maybe it's the theft of expensive organizational resources and property, or maybe it's the molestation of another, weaker employee within the organization. The point is, the wrong discovered is no minor infraction or bending of a rule. It's not just borrowing a pen from work and forgetting to return it. This is a serious offense.

Now imagine that same subordinate, following policy and the chain of command, reports the wrongful act either to his or her immediate superiors, or—in the case of an immediate superior being the actual perpetrator—to those appropriately next in the line of authority. The ranking individuals who receive the information thank the subordinate for coming forward and then promise to handle the situation.

Now imagine that weeks or maybe months go by, and nothing happens. Nothing. Or imagine that instead of nothing happening, the perpetrator suddenly retires with an appropriate organizational celebration and full retirement benefits. Or maybe the perpetrator is promoted to another position in another area, and the promotion includes an increase in salary. In any event, the perpetrator is not dismissed, not charged, not prosecuted, not called to account for the wrong committed.

At this point, imagine that you are the subordinate described above. What is your role, if any? Do you have an ethical obligation to take what you have discovered further? What if you have strong reason to believe that those high up in the organization are aware of your report but have chosen to deal with the situation as indicated above? Do you consider going outside the organization? What if revealing that information could potentially damage the reputation of the organization itself? What if going outside the organization also involves serious risks to your position, your ability to support yourself and your family, even your career if your lack of discretion and loyalty are discovered? What if such a discovery could imperil your safety? Are you still obligated to reveal what you know?

Yet, what if you don't act and don't take the information you've discovered further? Are you, in essence, entering into a degree of complicity with the wrong committed? You know it happened. You know it was wrong. To the very best of your knowledge, no punitive action was taken. If you remain silent, are you to some degree sanctioning an apparent cover-up?

Flash ahead six months—or maybe a couple of years—to a point in time when the wrong committed is eventually discovered by someone else, and suddenly you are called to task for not pursuing the matter further and not doing more, even if it meant going outside the organizational chain of command. You're suddenly characterized as lacking moral courage. Is that fair? Is it accurate?

For the next couple of issues, the subject of moral courage will be the focus of this column. Your thoughts and comments regarding the above case study and the topic of moral courage are invited.

About the Author(s): George Lober guides U.S. and international military students through the tricky terrain of ethics and critical thinking at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.