You've seen something improper. What's next?

These expert tips can help finance professionals have courageous conversations in the workplace.
You've seen something improper. What's next?

The workplace can be fraught with uncomfortable situations. Even in the best managed companies, problems can arise. Co-workers can behave unethically, criminally, or recklessly.

A workplace transgression creates a dilemma for witnesses. Do you speak up and damage your position, the company, or a co-worker? Or do you stay silent and let the problem persist?

Research has shown that amongst employees who observe workplace misconduct, about 56% remain silent, whether for fear of reprisal or through reluctance to go against the group.

"It's clear that over time, whistle-blowers have been perceived and characterised very negatively," said Sandy Boucher, a fraud and corruption investigator and whistle-blower systems practitioner at Grant Thornton LLP in Canada. "That's beginning to change. With high-profile cases like the Panama Papers, people are seeing that when you blow the whistle on something bad, that's a good thing."

Finance professionals can potentially play a different role in confronting malfeasance than other members of an organisation.

"Most other types of employees are just one link in the chain," said A.J. Brown, Ph.D., professor of public policy and law at Australia's Griffith University. "The financial management professional can be as many as four links at once, being not only well placed to identify when something is going wrong, but also having access to critical information, possibly with official responsibility to take action, and, at the CFO level, with influence over the whole organisational response."

Conversations around inappropriate workplace behaviour can require an extra level of courage, whether it be sexual harassment, negligence, bullying, or impropriety. Whatever the level or issue at hand, here are a few tips on developing the bravery to confront those tough conversations when you see something amiss.

Fuel your courage with preparation and self-education

Being courageous in the face of challenging conversations requires that you clearly understand the situation and the consequences before speaking up. That means taking the time to research company policies, the law, and the stakeholders involved to ensure you are on a solid factual footing. Having the facts on your side will go a long way in boosting your courage, as confronting difficult situations can often have unseen considerations.

"Well-trained financial management professionals need to understand that they live and work in a complex political environment, recognising the reality of who may have an interest in wrongdoing not being disclosed," said Brown.

A well-researched knowledge base will also help others understand your motivations for speaking up and make clear that you don't have ulterior motives.

"It's also important to realise that the decision to speak up is not just moral and ethical; it's logical and practical, too, when one considers the long-term interests of the organisation and its stakeholders," Brown added.

Be invested in the conversation, not the expected outcome

When you approach someone to discuss a suspected ethical lapse, you have only a few seconds for the person you're speaking to either to become defensive and shut you down or to engage in listening further, said Wendy Addison, a former whistle-blower who is the founder and CEO of SpeakOut SpeakUp Ltd., a consultancy that helps people foster courage in the workplace. Approach the conversation with an open mind and an intention to hear the other person out.

"People often go into these conversations angry and stressed, and expecting that the person they're talking to is going to do something about the situation, which is often not the case," Addison said. "To reel that back, invest your courage in the dialogue, in asking questions; that's where listening up comes in."

Active listening, instead of taking charge or making demands, allows others the freedom to express themselves in more constructive ways. Oftentimes, difficult conversations are fraught with history and tangled relationships, and people need the space to explain how they see their role, even if you don't agree.

Be the one to speak up; be an ally to the one speaking up

Difficult situations can be an opportunity for finance managers to help others within the company. We're social creatures, and it's a positive, powerful part of being human to call on others. Look for others who may be motivated to confront the difficult situation but also feel scared or isolated. Be open about your fears and express compassion with others.

"In my experience, people who witness misconduct think they're the only ones to notice, and it's never the case," Addison said. "Social science research shows that having just one additional person in a meeting, even if he or she doesn't speak, can diffuse the disproportionate influence of a person in power, and the person in power is much more likely to own up to any misconduct than if you go it alone."

Actively supporting others who speak up also helps create an environment of open communication within the workspace.

Appraise the situation through the lenses of self, situation, and systems

Our behaviour is influenced by our context, and we need to consider the whole constellation. Understanding your role, and the larger goals of the organisation, can empower you to take responsibility for the continued wellbeing of the company, even if you feel insignificant in the organisational chart.

"How do you see yourself, and what are the leverages you can give yourself to have a courageous conversation?" Addison said. "What are the situational influences? The certificates on your manager's wall and the trophies on the shelf can make you feel less powerful, diluting your ability to speak up."

It helps to remember that you are not alone within the company either. Many companies offer forums and procedures for dealing with difficult situations. Operating within a prescribed systemic mechanism can help bolster your courage by taking the guesswork out of the procedure.

The good news is that companies increasingly appreciate the value of whistle-blower programmes, and independent organisations have emerged around the world to provide guidance and support for whistle-blowers.

Support and resources

Addison's work with SpeakOut SpeakUp is grounded in the social psychology and cognitive behavioural research of Philip Zimbardo, professor emeritus, and Lynne Henderson, Ph.D., at Stanford University. Henderson is now chief curriculum officer at Courageous Leadership, a US-based service that empowers people to act wisely, ethically, and courageously in challenging workplace situations.

In the UK, Protect, formerly Public Concern at Work, advises individuals with whistle-blowing dilemmas, supports organisations with their whistle-blowing arrangements, and informs public policy while working for legislative change. In Canada, the Centre for Free Expression Whistleblowing Initiative was formed in March 2017 to play a similar role, with Sandy Boucher of Grant Thornton as a member of its steering committee.

In Australia, A.J. Brown is the lead researcher for Whistling While They Work 2. While not providing support for individual whistle-blowers, the project is a globally recognised effort to help organisations evaluate their polices and cultures and to improve governance and regulation standards. Brown is also a board member of Transparency International, which includes advocacy, public awareness, and research around whistle-blowing as part of its global portfolio.

John Lehmann-Haupt is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at