Do you work for an ethical company? How can you tell? What are the warning signs? What should you do if you suspect something bad is going on?

Corporate criminal conduct covers a broad and growing range of illegal activities, including: environmental violations, embezzlement, bribery, money laundering, illegal political activities, consumer fraud, price fixing, income tax fraud, government contracting fraud, and computer crimes. 

When reading about corporate crime, one can form the impression that “the company” did it, but these illegal and dangerous actions are taken by individuals. Law enforcement routinely charges employees deemed to be responsible, and after every major business crime there is a demand for personal accountability, including substantial jail time for employees. Honest and/or naïve employees can be caught up in these crimes and investigations, altering their lives in dramatic ways.

But how do you protect yourself from this growing threat to honest workers? What is an ethical company?

The search for the answer to this question begins before you start the job. The advertising, interviewing and on-boarding during the hiring process can provide clues. A process that is open, fair, and legal will give you confidence. Nepotism, improper questions, discrimination, and other questionable or illegal actions are warning signs that the prospective employer may not share your values.

Once you are on the job, look out for warning signs of a lack of ethics:

  • Dishonesty to employees, customers, vendors, supervisors
  • Favoritism
  • Harassment
  • Weak or compromised Human Resources department 
  • Pressure to ignore the stated values of the company
  • How actual misconduct is treated – is there a reporting system, is it used, do reporters suffer retaliation
  • No observable consequences for those engaging in misconduct

Some of these poor management practices are themselves illegal, while others indicate an overall lack of organizational ethics. This is the type of environment in which corporate criminal conduct can take hold and flourish.  

So, here you are at a position in a company that shows these or other warning signs of a lack of ethics, how can you protect yourself and your fellow honest colleagues? Don’t be naïve, pay attention to what you see and hear, look out for suspicious words and actions.

  • “Don’t tell corporate/the auditors/HR.”
  • “Just this once.”
  • “We’ll correct it next month.”
  • “We’ll have to close down if this gets out.”
  • “It’s how we did it last year so we have to be consistent.”
  • “I KNOW we’re going to win this bid – got it wired.”
  • “Eddie’s been doing that for years; he doesn’t mean any harm.”

Hearing words and phrases like these should put you on alert to specific wrongful conduct that might be behind such talk. It could indicate government contract fraud, Medicare fraud, competition/antitrust violations, accounting irregularities, hidden environmental violations, cover-up of harassment, etc. 

In the event you witness or strongly suspect unethical or illegal behavior, you will have a decision to make – stay silent or say something. We’re often told these days, “If you see something, say something,” and that’s a good policy. Plus, if you stay silent you may be implicated in the crime, or blamed by those with 20/20 hindsight. But what if the warning signs you have seen and your experience at the company tells you to be cautious? 

If trust is lacking, it is best to seek advice before you make the choice whether to raise the issue inside the company or become a whistleblower. Obtaining early advice from experienced attorneys provides multiple benefits, at no cost to you.

  • The burden and concern you are carrying is shared with an experienced professional.
  • You will get independent feedback about the concerns you have.
  • You will receive useful advice about how to handle the situation, including protecting yourself during the disclosure phase.
  • You will protect yourself from future retaliation.

If you are concerned about a situation you are aware of, you should act promptly to seek advice, both in order to take the burden off of your shoulders and because whistleblower laws have limitations periods which could act to bar your claim. Pelton Graham is here to help; contact us today.