4 Significant Warning Signs of Ethical Misconduct in the Workplace

A happy workplace is a healthy one with an ethically sustainable culture

However, that’s not always the case. There are several red flags to keep an eye – and ear – out for which, if left unaddressed or enabled to fester, can effectively poison your work environment. We’ve reached out to five individuals in leadership positions to determine which are the most significant warning signs of all. Today, through their responses, let’s explore them in more detail.


As a Partner of employment legal firm Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch, PC, Richard R. Renner knows firsthand the warning signs of an unethical work environment. Chief among them is concealment – a desire for perpetrators to isolate themselves in the shadows. Renner notes the following:

“Concealment is the first indicator of an ethical lapse. If managers think they can avoid detection, the next step toward misconduct seems that much easier to take. A leader’s decision to operate in secret and exclude those who might speak up about wrongdoing can be the first indication that leadership has decided to dispense with ethical standards. Other indicators include deviations from normal practice, imposing a chain of command on employees for raising their concerns, instilling fear of retaliation, using false reasons to justify their actions, and removing duties that have previously provided an employee with access to information that could show a violation.”

Silent Treatments

Silence is not “golden” by any means in a company – in fact, it can potentially harbour something negative. Christian Velitchkov, Co-Founder of Twiz LLC, provided compelling insights on the threat of silent treatments to an ethical workplace environment:

“Anytime there is a silent treatment regarding any matter, or should one not get a straight-up answer for the subject, it might be a red flag. If the company is addressing any matter as untouchable, there may or may not be something to keep between the walls.

While it may be nothing, the obvious thought that comes to anyone’s mind will be that if they don’t have anything to hide, why not discuss the matter? This can be a strong sign of ethical misconduct going around in the workplace. Keeping silent will also hamper the trust and faith of the people in the organization.”

Unrealistic Expectations

Paul French, Managing Director at Intrinsic Search, echoes the sentiments of many when it comes to how expectations should be established and set:

“As someone in a leadership position, I would say when managers or others in leadership consistently set unrealistic expectations, this is a sign of underlying ethical misconduct. Sure, nothing is wrong with being ambitious and inspiring your people to do more for themselves and the company. Still, when you knowingly nurture a culture of setting unrealistic goals, you are inadvertently encouraging employees to do whatever it takes, including engaging in misconduct to attain these goals.

This is especially true when the requirement to meet unrealistic goals is accompanied by overt or covert threats. For example, employees might be threatened with job loss or demotion from their current position if they do not meet the set goals. When you look at organizations caught up in insider fraud, it is almost always the case that employees were pressured into doing whatever it took to achieve specific unattainable goals or lose their jobs or valued benefits and perks.”

Guilt in the Atmosphere

The Founder of ContentDog, Hilda Wong, explains in detail how the truth will eventually find its way out, largely due to how guilt acts as a warning sign of an unethical workplace:

“If there is ethical misconduct going around in the workplace, it cannot be hidden for long. There have to be some instances where the guilty party will loosen up and the guilt will show, if not the wrongdoing. Keep a sharp eye around at whatever seems off to you. Small clues might lead to big exposure. This does sound more like Sherlock Holmes than real life, but the feeling of guilt cannot be buried inside without showing out now and then. If you are lucky enough, you might be able to get the cat out of the bag.”

Sometimes, guilt can spurn other consequences in a work environment, such as being overworked or afraid to say “no.” Natalie Maximets, Certified Life Transformation Coach of Online Divorce, notes several key indicators that you should be on the lookout for:

“One: A clear signal of ethical misconduct in the workplace is the compulsion to do something that is beyond your authority. Quite often, lower-level employees are faced with this, who are forced to take on more responsibility or make decisions that are not included in the authority.

Two: Another evidence of a violation of ethics is when you are asked to work for free. It is important to remember that any work should be paid, and if you are burdened with additional responsibilities, then they should also be additionally paid.

Three: Pay attention to the fact that you or someone in the team is experiencing a constant feeling of discomfort. It is worth investigating this situation carefully, as the cause is most likely a violation of work ethics. 

Four: Constant feelings of irritation or anger. If you are stressed all the time, come home angry and cannot calm down for a long time, this indicates that you are under constant pressure. And, in most cases, it arises from a violation of ethics in the workplace.”

We are grateful for these leaders speaking out on the warning signs of ethical misconduct in the workplace. If you notice any of these red flags, don’t be afraid to inspect employment laws and determine whether your rights are being violated. Employers and those they are responsible for must adhere to these legal standards if they hope to foster a healthy, efficient, and safe work environment where everyone succeeds as a team.

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photo Amanda Nieweler
About the Author
Amanda writes for WhistleBlower Security about ethics, compliance, workplace culture, and whistleblower hotlines. Amanda brings her nearly two decades of risk and compliance experience to the WBS blog where she is dedicated to helping people and companies promote speak-up cultures.

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