Q: I’m in an awkward position. I process expense reports and can tell that someone is breaking some rules when he files his reports. It’s nothing big, so I might be being picky. If I report it, it’ll be obvious to him that I was the whistleblower. I’m worried about the consequences; what should I do?
Josh, 30, accounting specialist
A: Take an incremental approach to this ethical dilemma.
You’re right to trust your gut on whether something is acceptable. In your position, it’s your role to know and uphold the financial rules. Moreover, your company’s credibility ultimately is at play.
That said, if you have doubts about whether you’re correctly interpreting the rules, consult with your manager to be sure you’re on solid ground.
Then take the easiest first step: rejecting the report. This face-saving option gives your colleague the chance to back down from his questionable claim. For example, you could bounce the report back with a “there seems to be an error” message on the shaky part of the expense. And who knows? It may be an innocent mistake. If there is intent, it puts him on alert that it’s been noticed.
What if he stands by his claim that all his expenses are legitimate? If you still have concerns, you’re probably best off escalating it through your boss. In fact, you may benefit from reviewing all “rejected” reports with your manager so that either ethical or training problems come to light.
This may be triggering your concerns about whistle-blowing and consequences. If so, take some time to think through both sides of the question.
On the one hand, if you raise his financial reports as an issue, he’ll know you flagged it. Give some thought to any retribution he could exact. If he is a member of your department, it’s indeed a sensitive situation, as it is if he is a senior leader in the organization.
If he doesn’t have any actual power over your employment status, then the threat is more about personal unpleasantness. He may bad mouth you to others; if this occurs, what’s the worst thing that could happen?
In either case, it’ll serve you well to document the situation, clearly stating your reasons for concern and the steps you took. Documentation is far more powerful if there’s an issue than relying on your memory. Keep in mind, too, that if you’re being harassed for doing your job honestly, you can (and should) escalate that. You do not deserve to be treated poorly.
On the other hand, if you ignore the issue, you become party to his malfeasance. If it comes to light later, it could put you in a tenuous position.
Stepping away from the more concrete aspects, consider what kind of person you want to be. Even though this may not be a profound issue of right or wrong, it is a matter of personal integrity. The reputation you establish for yourself will be your best asset as you advance in your career.
What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, leadership coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.