How an ethical crisis takes shape in the workplace

Most employees obey illegal orders to save their jobs

In Summary

• The defiance of Cabinet directive by Kenyatta University Council was unusual

As an employee, how would you handle a situation in which following the rules could cost you your job? Would you refuse to obey instructions that you interpret as unethical or even illegal?

Many employees, whether in junior positions or the executive suite, encounter such dilemmas during their careers. It could be something as mundane as your boss asking you not to tell anyone that he or she has left early. Or it could be something serious, like being instructed to falsify financial records to help your employer evade taxes.

With unemployment raging and the fear of not getting another job, most employees choose to comply with their bosses' instructions. The common response is, "Hey, I have a family to take care of," "I have a car loan to pay," and "I've just started doing a university degree." Employees find excuses to avoid taking a stand that could get them sacked.

It was, therefore, a big surprise to Kenyans when the management of Kenyatta University declined to heed a Cabinet directive regarding part of the university's land. The national government plans to reallocate the contentious parcel of land. The entire University Council was dissolved and a new one installed. The then Vice Chancellor, Prof Paul Wainaina, was dramatically relieved of his duties.

In a country where public figures are known to give in at the possibility of getting sacked, the position taken by the Kenyatta University Council was stunning. Most people would have implemented a Cabinet directive without a second thought. Many Kenyans cannot understand why high-ranking government officials would risk their careers for property they do not personally own.

With unemployment raging and the fear of not getting another job, most employees choose to comply with their bosses' instructions. The common response is, 'Hey, I have a family to take care of'


Employees generally look up to their management for guidance on ethical matters. Megan Kopicko, the author of a paper on corporate ethics, says numerous studies have shown a link between ethical conduct and moral leadership. "In any work environment where the senior management team upholds integrity, the junior employees are likely to emulate them," she says.

Kopicko defines unethical behaviour as any given behaviour that breaches the law or an organisational ethical standard. Such behaviours include sexual harassment, covering up misdeeds, theft and industrial espionage (stealing secrets from competitors).

In her studies on corporate ethics, Kopicko brings up the 'Broken Window' theory, which was popularised by former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. By 1994, when Giuliani took office as Mayor, New York City was one of the most dangerous in the United States. At the end of Giuliani's tenure in 2001, violent crime was down 50 per cent, while murders had declined by 67 per cent.

The Broken Window theory suggests that visible signs of disorder (buildings with broken windows) encourage serious crimes, such as robberies and murder. Minor offences, if ignored, lead to bigger infractions. Giuliani introduced a zero-tolerance policy on all petty crimes, such as vandalism, painting of graffiti, public urination and hawking.

A similar trend can be observed in the workplace. A workplace where minor breaches of ethics are ignored is a workplace where large incidents will also be overlooked. An employer who ignores ethical standards will eventually have to deal with the loss of reputation, lawsuits and possible prison sentences for breaking the law.

Organisations in Kenya are affected by both minor and serious breaches of ethics. These include conflict of interest, favouritism, racism, tribalism, sexual harassment, billing fraud, bribery, poor time management, absenteeism and alcohol consumption. Academic fraud is also a major problem. The Kenya National Qualifications Authority made shocking revelations that a third of all academic certificates in the country are fake.

One way in which government and the corporate sector have tried to inculcate ethical behaviour is by developing codes of ethics. Dr Stuart Gilman, a political scientist, says the Biblical Ten Commandments are one example of a code of ethics. "They [codes of ethics] often capture a vision of excellence, of what individuals and societies should be striving for and what they can achieve," Gilman says.

"When everyone knows the ethical standards of an organisation, they are more likely to recognise wrongdoing and do something about it," Gilman says. Miscreants are often hesitant to commit an unethical act if they believe everyone else around them knows it is wrong. Gilman affirms that inculcating ethics in organisations discourages acts of corruption because corrupt individuals fear getting caught in environments that emphasise ethical behaviour.

The 2010 Constitution has an entire chapter dedicated to leadership and integrity. Chapter 6 lists out the conduct expected from public officials. The Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission falls under Chapter 6 of the Constitution and has published a list of dos and don'ts to guide government employees and elected leaders. A person convicted of unethical conduct as defined in the Leadership and Integrity Act faces fines of up to Sh5 million, imprisonment of up to five years or both fine and imprisonment.


What, then, do you do when you receive orders you consider unethical or outright illegal? Many companies these days have a whistle-blowing policy. Whistle-blowing is the act of telling the authorities or the public about wrongdoing in a particular organisation.

Employers who have a whistleblowing policy in place will usually have a system through which employees report unethical acts before the problem leaks out to the public. The system might be a specially designed web page or a special email address. If you encounter unethical practices at the workplace, first use the whistleblowing system established by your employer.

If you are a member of a trade union, consult your local representative on how to go about the matter. You could also involve your professional association when reporting the matter. If it's a health and safety issue, direct your complaints to the safety representative.

Despite the existence of whistleblowing mechanisms, the fate of whistleblowers in Kenya is discouraging. Dismissal from employment is likely to be the consequence. University of Nairobi academic George Onyango believes whistleblowing is frowned upon in the public sector.

Writing in the Journal of Economic and Political Studies, Onyango argues that laws on whistleblowing are weak, making it extremely risky for whistleblowers to stick out their heads. "To enhance whistleblowing, there is a need to insulate potential whistleblowers from legal retaliation, including cultural retaliation that comes in the form of emotional and professional attacks," Onyango advises.

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