Responding to Illegal Workplace Behaviour

Responding to Illegal Workplace Behaviour

  • Posted by Stephen White
  • On November 1, 2017
  • employee responses to illegal workplace behaviour, improper behaviour, responding to illegal workplace behaviour, workplace investigations


One of the most troubling challenges any employee faces in their career is responding to illegal workplace behaviour.  This is always a contentious issue, especially for persons working in small to medium-sized organizations.  Do you report it? Should you remain silent?  Should you go to the authorities?

I truly believe there is no right or wrong answer here because sometimes the consequences can be overwhelming for those brave souls who step forward. However, as with any workplace issue, there are usually several steps in the process, so understanding how these issues are typically addressed, in what sequence, and understanding the factors to evaluate at each stage, can often be helpful in framing an appropriate course of action.

  • Confirm what is happening. Don’t rely on gossip or feedback from others. Wherever possible, and as discretely, safely and carefully as possible, verify your suspicions through first-hand observation.
  • Obtain evidence. Once you have confirmed suspicions that something illegal or improper is going on get evidence. Sometimes this may involve photocopying a document, asking a trusted colleague to confirm what you have seen, or taking a picture with your cell phone.
  • Diarize. Record in writing everything you have seen, said, heard or done by date and time.   Note that I wrote “record in writing”. Do not put it on a work computer as this is company property. Keep this record in a hard copy journal that remains in your possession. At some point it may be required for evidence.
  • Get an objective second opinion. Approach someone in authority in the organization you trust, or a subject matter expert, and ask for their objective thoughts and input. Ask them if what you have seen or experienced is, in fact, illegal or improper. If you seek counsel from someone in the company ensure that the person you are entrusting with this information is professional, discrete, and can maintain confidences. If it is someone outside your organization, provide high level details but refrain from divulging too many specifics, and be sure to maintain confidentialities. If what you are dealing with involves a legal issue it may be worthwhile seeking the opinion of legal counsel.
  • Determine whether the behaviour or actions are illegal vs. improper. Sometimes there is a thin line between the two, and knowing the difference can often guide you in how and to whom you should report it.

For instance, someone who is stealing products from their employer, or who is deliberately falsifying official records, may be involved in illegal behaviour. However, a supervisor who pads their expense report, or who provides an exaggerated estimate for an annual budget, is engaged in improper behaviour.

  • Raising the issue. The most delicate part of the process is determining to whom the issue should be raised. Larger corporations often have what is called a “Whisteblower Program” with a designated senior manager tasked with hearing and investigating complaints of illegal or improper behaviour. Smaller companies may or may not have a Human Resources Department. In either case, both officials should be senior individuals who have the authority and requisite training to investigate your complaint.

How do you protect yourself from negative repercussions? I suggest there are two options you should consider. First, draft a confidentiality declaration confirming that your identify will be protected, and that no negative repercussions will ensue from what you will raise in your meeting.  Then get the senior manager to sign it before providing details. Second, either bring a witness into the meeting (ideally, a fellow employee you trust), or, with the knowledge and consent of the senior manager, tape record him or her providing verbal consent to provide protection from negative repercussions or harassment.

  • Investigation.  At a minimum senior management should investigate your complaint and prepare a written report within two weeks. Ideally, this investigation should involve a detailed review of your observations, as well as personal meetings with the alleged perpetrators of the illegal or improper actions or behaviours. Prior to dissemination of the report the person who conducted the investigation should meet with you privately to review the findings.
  • If the Investigation or Report is Unsatisfactory. Assuming that the report is incomplete, or inaccurate, or that you are dissatisfied with the findings, you really have two choices. You can either accept it, or you can challenge it. Challenging it can be both stressful and emotionally troubling, so before deciding to go this route carefully evaluate the short and long-term ramifications.

Depending on the nature of the issue you have any number of options. If the activity is illegal then raising the concern with the police or government regulatory agencies is an option. If the behaviour is improper then taking it forward to the Board of Directors, or other senior officials in your company or organization, are possibilities.


Confronting illegal workplace behaviour

Confronting issues of illegal workforce behaviour can be extremely stressful and emotionally draining.


There is no right or wrong answer on how best to proceed. Every situation is unique, and every situation needs to be evaluated based upon the facts, the evidence, and the type of organization. Many times throughout my career I have seen cases where employees turned a blind eye to illegal or improper behaviour. Their reticence was motivated by fear of job loss or the potentially negative effect upon their families and personal relationships. I also saw a few cases where some very brave, principled individuals stepped forward to challenge what was happening. Sometimes the results were positive. Sometimes unfortunately, they ended up being scapegoated.

If you are confronted with this issue carefully consider the consequences and understand not just where you are in the process but also, the ramifications of your decision.


Are you facing a challenge such as this? Sometimes it pays to get an impartial opinion. Feel free to contact me for a confidential consultation.



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