Risk and the Top Performer

During tax season, NPR on WAMU-FM is my constant companion while I prepare tax returns for my clients. I don’t hear every word, but some interviews are so riveting that they pull my attention away from my work. It happened again last week when Susan Fowler was interviewed about her 2017 blog post and 2020 book, “Whistleblower: My Journey to Silicon Valley and Fight for Justice at Uber,” where she outed Uber about its unethical and misogynist work environment. 

Ms. Fowler’s experiences really make you shake your head, wondering how any organization could function with the level of sexual harassment and retaliation against female employees that she described. Unsurprisingly, Ms. Fowler observed that Uber’s leaders ignored and excused bad behavior because the perpetrators were “top performers.” 

Focusing on money rather than ethics proved to be a huge risk for Uber. What about your organization? Ignoring that rules are being broken, even by a top performer, costs money and reputation. Plus, it tells all your workers that inappropriate, or even illegal, behavior is tolerated, or even encouraged, to make a buck. That’s a very dangerous message that some workers will take advantage of. Workers who won’t tolerate lax ethics could resign.

Organizations use three weapons to battle the risk of unethical or illegal behaviors:

  • Codes of Ethics and Policies

People don’t do the right thing just because you have expectations written down in your policies and codes of ethics. However, if expectations aren’t written down, no one can be held accountable. Enforcement is essential for policies to be effective. Above all, leadership must set the tone that inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated.

  • Structure and Defined Roles

Reporting relationships and defined oversight roles must be set up to ensure that independent reviews and approvals exist. No one person should have unchecked control over a contract, transaction, or other financial decision. Lack of oversight provides opportunities to commit fraud by misdirecting funds or altering key information.

  • Incentive-Based Pay

Commissions and other incentive-based pay programs are intended to reward workers for achieving specified goals. Those incentives can end up backfiring. Workers could pad their numbers or reverse sales to inflate their commission. Design incentive-based pay programs with safeguards that reduce opportunities to engage in fraud.

Don’t ignore the warning signs that a worker, even a top performer, is a risk to your organization. Learn from the mistakes of others…use these three weapons to battle the financial and reputational cost of ignoring the signs of inappropriate, or even illegal, behavior.