Speaking Up

It is important to not only know how to recognize an ethical issue but

how to raise it—especially one that may be more of a gray area.

Ethics hotlines or helplines are important features in many company ethics and compliance programs because they provide employees and other stakeholders with a way to report ethical concerns anonymously. Employee reports are important, because they provide opportunities for companies to identify problems, correct them, and prevent their reoccurrence.

Hotlines aren’t the only way for employees to express concern about possible ethical violations. They may be encouraged to report directly to a trusted supervisor or to the ethics office or human resources staff, if they are comfortable doing so. And, depending on the situation, they might be advised to raise concerns directly with the person whose actions are of some concern.

However it’s not always easy for people to recognize an ethical issue, and, for many different reasons, people can be quite uncomfortable with when, how, or if to speak up. A recent Harvard Business Review article touches on this reality, and offers advice on how to speak up about ethical issues (Gallo, 2015).

As quoted in the article, Mary Gentile, director of the Giving Voice to Values program at Babson College, says “it’s important to not only know how to recognize an ethical issue but how to raise it— especially one that may be more of a gray area. There is no one strategy or answer for all situations. The key is to practice ahead of time, before a situation arrives so you’re ready when it does.”

The HBR article offers the following tips on what people can do when trying to decide if a situation is worth reporting.

  • Watch (yourself) for rationalizations
  • Consider what’s really at risk—ask yourself  what value is being violated or why it is troubling you
  • Try to understand why the other person is acting the way they are
  • Weigh the pros and cons
  • Talk to the perpetrator first, if possible; give him or her the opportunity to explain or change behavior before escalating an issue


“That said,” according to the article, “if a violation is a particularly serious one, with potentially grave consequences, you may need to go to your boss, speak to HR, or call your company’s ethics hotline immediately.”

  • Rehearse what you are going to say if you decide to say something
  • Ask questions, don’t accuse
  • Escalate when necessary
  • Protect yourself

Ethics issues are seldom black and white in the eyes of perpetrators or the employees around them. The HBR article reminds us that speaking up, while seldom comfortable for anyone, can be made easier if people take time to ask questions and plan their approach.

Ethical Advocate provides ethics hotline solutions and custom-designed live and on-line ethics training and seminars. Contact us to learn more.


Gallo, Amy. “How to Speak Up About Ethical Issues at Work,” Harvard Business Review blog, June 2015. https://hbr.org/2015/06/how-to-speak-up-about-ethical-issues-at-work