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How to Deal

Is it okay to blow the whistle on corrupt coworkers?

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By Lily Garcia
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 11, 2009; 4:41 PM

I have a good friend who is a tenured faculty member at a state university. A junior faculty member in their department gave a presentation at a national conference that was plagiarized. My friend was a witness to the plagiarized presentation and brought this to the attention of the department head and to the dean. Both told the witness to say nothing to no one and implied there would be consequences if the witness informed anyone else. The junior faculty member is up for tenure.

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This is not the first time the toxic management style of the department head (bullying, vindictive, etc.) has intimidated a faculty member and/or staff member to say nothing. I am reminded of the quote: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." Given the fear of retaliation, what should my friend do next? My friend will personally gain nothing by going above the dean and department head. My friend could lose when it comes time for salary increases or course assignments. Yet clearly, it is not wise for the department or university to tenure a faculty member who plagiarizes. How should my friend expose the plagiarism and avoid the likely retaliation?

If your friend takes measures to ensure that the junior faculty member's plagiarism is taken into consideration by the tenure committee, he (I don't know your friend's sex, but let's pretend it's male for ease of reading) will be defending the reputation of the institution and the integrity of the tenure evaluation process. Since the department head and dean have both sought to silence your friend, they are now complicit in the plagiarism that your friend sought to expose. If this unfortunate incident is just one of many, then your friend's act of courage may trigger a university response that will culminate in a beneficial change of leadership. It is therefore not necessarily accurate to say that your friend stands to gain nothing from coming forward.

Your friend may have good reason to fear retaliation for pursuing his concerns. If your friend does nothing, however, that does not guarantee that retaliation will not occur. The mere act of raising a concern regarding plagiarism in the department has identified your friend as a troublemaker who must be kept in his place. A bullying department head may be inclined to mete punishment on your friend for the sole purpose of asserting power and ensuring future compliance. So your friend should not be surprised if his annual salary increase or upcoming course assignments are disappointing even if he drops the issue altogether. In other words, your friend may have little to lose at this point by pursuing his cause.

If your friend is mainly concerned about preventing an unworthy junior faculty member from getting tenure, then he should report the plagiarism to the tenure committee. Before making the report, your friend could confront the junior faculty member who plagiarized the presentation and allow him the opportunity to voluntarily come before the tenure committee to explain what happened. The junior faculty member could then save face and present any mitigating factors that should be taken into consideration rather than being exposed as a fraud. I cannot think of any convincing excuses for plagiarism, but I can imagine that this junior faculty member may be a fundamentally ethical person who, under tremendous pressure to make a good impression, had a very serious lapse in judgment. The only problem with this approach is that it fails to address the complicity of the department head and dean.

Your friend could ask a trusted faculty member from another academic institution who attended the presentation in question to write a letter of concern to the provost and the president, thereby escalating his concerns without becoming directly involved in delivering the message. Assuming that these senior leaders respond as they should, they will ask questions. Because he attended the conference, your friend may be called upon to provide his perspective, in which case he can confirm the plagiarism and innocently mention that it is an issue he had previously raised with the department head and the dean.

Your friend could also take the more direct route of simply blowing the whistle on both the plagiarism and the attempted cover-up. In addition to offering evidence of the plagiarism to the tenure committee, he could tell the provost or president about how the department head and dean responded. Since the head of your friend's department has a history of intimidation, other frustrated faculty members might be willing to join your friend in making his point regarding this person's abuse of power.

The good news for your friend is that his tenure guarantees near absolute job security. The bad news is that tenure offers no protection against the surreptitious forms of retaliation that your friend legitimately fears. If your friend speaks out and there is no change in the leadership of the department, then he may be bearing the brunt of his decision for years to come. For someone who values honesty and takes pride in the institution, however, keeping quiet may in the end be a far more onerous alternative.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.


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