Unethical infractions—whether big or small—occur regularly at work, but a recent survey shows employees tend to look the other way. 

Not all infractions are as obvious as say, embezzlement, and can seem innocent enough: working with a colleague who takes extra long breaks or nabs credit for your work, but experts say not acknowledging these violations can have long-term effects.

An online survey out of VitalSmarts reports 63% of respondents say they frequently observe minor and major infractions yet confront only half of the unethical behavior. Four excuses top the list: confronting the offense would damage their career, fear of making it hard to work with the offender, worry of not being taken seriously and simply not knowing how to file the complaint.

Together or separately, these excuses amount to little more than “post hoc reasoning,” says Joseph Grenny, co-author of Crucial Accountability and co-founder of VitalSmarts. “You decided you are uncomfortable and now you need to manufacture your reasons.”

But not speaking out has grave consequences, warns Grenny. Minor things that remain unaddressed provide cues about the ethical standards of an organization and build up to less expectation for moral rectitude.

Even if the offense didn’t lead to a large loss or consequence, the broken windows theory of organizational ethics suggests that employee engagement and sense of efficacy suffers when violations go undocumented, says Grenny.

Not addressing and making right the situation—whether it’s large or small—leads to disengagement in an organization, he says.  “While biting your lip may make your job easier in the short term, it does little to preserve productive working relationships and profitable organizations.”

Ethical climates are more likely created when employees feel enabled to blow the whistle. And experts say, corporate support is usually quite visible with serious issues, but lack with minor violations.

Small steps

The survey shows those who speak up about small infractions are six times more likely to speak up about major ones. Addressing the little things builds competence and potentially reinforces employee trust in the corporate culture. 

There is also the issue of personal well-being that could stop a whistleblower. “You spend a lot of hours at work,” says Rita Harris, author of Your Guide to Spotting and Outing Bloodsuckers at Work. “Feeling frustrated much of the time is not good for your health.”

Plus, only by addressing a perceived wrongdoing can you have honest disagreement versus the continued nagging thought that, say for example, “that guy took credit,” says Grenny.

The key to a successful encounter is in the approach: Your mindset helps to build competence, says Linda Swindling, an attorney and author of Stop Complainers and Energy Drainers. Ask yourself what’s in it for the person committing the alleged infraction, then instead of going into battle mode, be collaborative to come up with a solution that benefits you and the other party as well as the organization. 

“Remember, this is a strategic communication—a negotiation,” says Swindling. “You’re not just having a discussion about any subject. Preparation is essential. “You cannot wing it.”

Also give thought to your safety and assess whether raising the issue directly with the offender will cause you harm, says Grenny. If so, seek security and turn to human resources for help or get legal assistance.

If safety is not an issue, experts suggest these steps for safely blowing the whistle:

Identify your worst-case scenario. Take this into account before making any moves, suggest Swindling. Things can go wrong in any negotiation. Ask yourself, “Can I live with myself if I do not try to turn the situation around?” If you can’t, you don’t have the right plan.

Gather data. Given that you’re likely to encounter confusion and denial after you approach your colleague, gather all the data you can to help make your case, says Grenny. The clearer your data, the more likely you are to be persuasive.

Avoid conspiracy. When things happen our brains go into risk assessment mode, says Grenny. We ask ourselves what are all the bad things that could happen if I speak up and fail to look at the other side of the equation—an omission that makes us part of a conspiracy of silence.

Share your facts. Most people tend to mix judgment with facts. To avoid this, lay out your concern using data. Don’t say, “You stole office supplies,” which already condemns the colleague for actions inappropriate or immoral, says Grenny.  Rather say, “I noticed you placed a ream of copy paper in your briefcase.”

Tentatively share your concerns. As suspicious as the activity may seem, there might be a reasonable explanation, says Grenny. Use tentative terms like, “I’m not exactly sure of what I saw today, but I was tempted to conclude…” You have to lay out the facts, unapologetically but tentatively. Use words like, “maybe I’m misunderstanding.” You’re not showing weakness but your openness to additional information, and giving your colleague the opportunity to challenge or clarify what you’ve seen. This also requires you to be honest if their persuasion doesn’t convince you of their position. 

Get the other person’s viewpoint. Listen for information, not excuses, when you ask the offender for his or her perspective. You are not surrendering your viewpoint, just ensuring you have all the facts.

Adopt a 360 degree view. Finally, if you can’t work things out to your satisfaction, either take it to your boss (if he or she isn’t the party in question) or to HR. Remember, though, says Swindling, not all human resources professionals are created equal. In the back of your mind, give some thought to what you’d do if you got fired for confronting an issue. Do you want to work for such a company?

“You cannot totally bullet proof yourself against everything,” says Swindling. But if you show up powerfully, most companies will value you—and if they don’t, another company will.”