How far “to go” about a colleague’s unethical/unlawful behavior.

A well-known and standard ethics text offers the following scenario:

A clinical social worker at a community mental health center has a caseload that includes clients who have been diagnosed with symptoms of schizophrenia and affective disorders. The social worker’s co-worker discovers that the social worker has been inflating the number of overtime hours she has worked and the amount of her reimbursable travel expenses. The co-worker is aware that Ms. Holmes has been having some financial problems.

The scenario presented above asks the reader to explore the obigations, if any, that the co-worker has to take any action concerning the matter of which he has knowledge. Reference is made to the NASW Code of Ethics, and the reader is asked to consider which of any code provisions provides guidance in this scenario as to exactly which steps to take and, specifically, “how far” the matter should be taken.

If one immediately recognizes the above dilemma as primarily a legal one because of the unlawful practice witnessed by the co-worker, then the conduct observed makes any provisions contained in the Code of Ethics quite beside the point. Many employers have a formal policy that requires workers to advise the employer or the worker’s immediate supervisor when unlawful conduct is observed within the agency. In the immediate example, it could well be observed that if the co-worker fails to report his colleague’s misconduct, the co-worker himself may well become an accessory to the crime, depending upon the specific provisions of the law in effect in the state in which the scenario has taken place. In any event, the co-worker must report the matter to a supervisory authority in the interest of ensuring that the agency’s overall employment reports are free from false representations. That legal responsibility is clear, but the additional question might be asked, is there ever a duty to report the misconduct to a police authority outside the agency? Certainly if the supervisor ultimately in charge of keeping employment records refuses to act or denies the reality that a false report has been prepared, resulting in the possibiity that a false report could be allowed to stand, then the co-worker could reasonably be observed to have a legal obligation requiring him to report the matter outside of the agency. In this instance, it would seem that the co-worker’s legal responsibility to the public plainly trumps any internal agency policies governing the reporting of misconduct by agency workers. Any thoughts on this one? Please post!

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