What to Do When a Leader Does Something Unacceptable

After a leadership team meeting I attended not long ago, one of the executives in attendance sent an email asking to speak with me confidentially. When we were able to connect, he asked, “What do you do when someone in leadership above you does something completely unacceptable?”

The question was disturbing, but not terribly surprising. We may think of most leaders as educated and ethically evolved, but as with any other field, there are some bad apples.

Faced with the knowledge that a leader in your organization has done something immoral, unethical, illegal or reckless, you have a decision to make. Do you do something about it, or try to push it off to the side and continue working as before? And if you choose to do something, what’s the best way to proceed?

Most of us want to do the right thing, but it’s not a simple choice. Here are some helpful points to consider:

Think about the nature of the behavior you witnessed. The first step is to define whether the behavior is something you disagree with—something that violates your personal moral code—or something that’s truly intolerable. Ask yourself some questions: Is it illegal? Does it violate your industry or employer’s code of ethics? Is it an isolated one-time incident, or part of a pattern? How is it affecting others in the workplace? Read up on your employer’s conduct policies to learn about official and unofficial reporting options. You may even be required to report certain things.

Don’t let yourself become comfortable with being uncomfortable. The first time something happens, you’re likely to feel outraged and furious. But if you choose not to say anything and it happens again, you may be a little less upset. After every instance, it gets a little easier to think of it as just the way things are. Are you OK with the behavior continuing, or is there a cycle that’s important to break?

Think about repercussions. Whether you decide to take a stand or not, you may experience repercussions in your own career and life. Depending on the severity of the behavior, anonymous reporting options or whistleblower laws may be in effect—but it’s unrealistic to deny that integrity is often costly. On the other hand, if you look the other way and the behavior becomes public through other channels, you may be seen as complicit.

Consider the range of options. Depending on the situation, you may choose to look for a different job, share your concerns with someone within your organization, or take official action through HR or the legal system. Whatever path you choose, keep a written record of events with as much documentation as possible. You may also want to confide in a close and trusted co-worker.

Ultimately, you’re the only one who can decide how best to move forward without compromising who you are.

Lead from within: Sometimes the best you can do is to change what you can, accept what you cannot, and remove yourself from the unacceptable.


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The Leadership Gap
What Gets Between You and Your Greatness

After decades of coaching powerful executives around the world, Lolly Daskal has observed that leaders rise to their positions relying on a specific set of values and traits. But in time, every executive reaches a point when their performance suffers and failure persists. Very few understand why or how to prevent it.

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Lolly Daskal is one of the most sought-after executive leadership coaches in the world. Her extensive cross-cultural expertise spans 14 countries, six languages and hundreds of companies. As founder and CEO of Lead From Within, her proprietary leadership program is engineered to be a catalyst for leaders who want to enhance performance and make a meaningful difference in their companies, their lives, and the world.

Of Lolly’s many awards and accolades, Lolly was designated a Top-50 Leadership and Management Expert by Inc. magazine. Huffington Post honored Lolly with the title of The Most Inspiring Woman in the World. Her writing has appeared in HBR, Inc.com, Fast Company (Ask The Expert), Huffington Post, and Psychology Today, and others. Her newest book, The Leadership Gap: What Gets Between You and Your Greatness has become a national bestseller.

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