What to Do When Your Friend Acts Unethically: Karen Swim

Joining me on this week’s episode is Karen Swim, APR, the President and CEO of Words for Hire, a virtual agency experienced in strategic communications, public relations, marketing, content marketing and social media. She discusses what to do when your friend acts unethically and shares some great public relations ethics advice, including:

Why don’t you tell us a little bit more about yourself and your career?

I have run a micro agency, Words for Hire, for about 15 years. I started out actually with the intention of focusing in on content marketing only, but quickly realized that people needed strategic counsel as well. I took a winding path to PR by working with PR agencies and felt like I found a home for all of my skillsets. It seemed like it was a career customized for me. And so I took a deeper dive into PR and got my APR and the rest is history. And I could not have found a better place to use all of the things that I’ve learned over my entire career.

Thinking about your entire career, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

It was actually prior to my PR career. I worked in corporate America in the healthcare industry. This was during the time that had followed a great deal of lawsuits and compliance issues around billing and coding of tests, and the industry was really trying to clean up and rid itself of what had become accepted practices – but they weren’t necessarily ethical practices. I was managing a sales team, and I had one of my top sales people falsify paperwork that inflated his sales numbers, and it went on for quite a bit of time undetected. When it came out, obviously it was not only an ethical breach, but it was a breach of his employment contract and I had to terminate his employment.

It was particularly difficult because I was a young manager who was still learning how to lead, and the person was also a personal friend. I knew his spouse and his children. It was a stab to the heart that someone that considered to be a friend, had not only committed this unethical breach but it put me in a position of upper management digging deep to ensure that I didn’t know about it and ignored it.

I have compassion for people making bad decisions. As I matured and looked back on it, I can certainly understand that perhaps there were financial pressures that I didn’t know about, however, I cemented in that moment that no matter what’s going on and no matter the stress or the anxiety that you are feeling, you always have to do the right thing, and that’s something that I can credit my parents really instilling in me.  The unethical behavior went undetected for a period of time and he gained from that, but it’s never okay. You are always going to win by making the right choice, and even if it costs you in the short term, it’s far better to pay that cost in the short term by doing the right thing than to say, “Well, no one’s looking, I can get away with it because the longer term cost is far greater.”

How did you first find out about it and what were some of your initial steps when you found out that one of your friends was doing something unethical?

There was an audit that brought it to the forefront and I was called in by senior management and confronted with the evidence. And my first reaction was shock. I was horrified that this thing had happened and I wanted to check the boxes before I spoke to the person.

My first action was to speak with the client that was involved, to work back through the paper trial, to examine the evidence, and also to figure out how this happened and how could we prevent this from ever happening again. Because clearly that meant that it wasn’t just the ethical breach, something was wrong with our system. We needed to fix the underlying issue as well as deal with the employee issue. And then it came down to good old fashioned management, talking to the person and allowing them to tell their side of the story and align it with what happened.

He denied it, but the paperwork told the story and his signature was on things, so denying it didn’t help. And then exercising in the most compassionate way, terminating employment, which is difficult, but you always have to consider the humanity. And for me, making the right choice, not defending someone that I had a personal relationship with, but standing for truth, meant that not only did I lose what I thought was a great employee, but I lost a friend.

That was the other lesson I learned. That doing the right thing is not always popular. It may cost you even when you’re not in the wrong, when you’re the one that’s standing up. When you’re standing for ethical behaviors, not everyone will stand with you.

When you’re thinking about that situation and you’ve worked through it, know you need to look at the survivors and your peers who have questions. And there’s not a lot you can’t say due to HR. What’s your advice for helping navigate that ethically?

You use it as a teachable moment. It was a painful time because we were a close-knit team and I had focused on creating collaboration among our team members. I was proud that people were friends and that we supported one another and we could count on one another. So, I brought them together and said as much as I could say, without being disrespectful to the human being that was involved. Because at the end of the day, here was somebody who made a really bad choice, and I like to separate that out, because I don’t think that he was a bad person, I think that he made a bad choice.

I think that he got caught up in circumstances that allowed him to make a decision that wasn’t the smartest thing to do. And so, I did not focus on the bad behavior, but on the situation, and how we need it to recommit to doing things the right way. And I wanted to focus in on creating an open environment so that if people were struggling, that they had a forum to come and be safe and discuss those struggles rather than making these bad decisions.

It was an opportunity me to reinforce the standards, for me to talk about the right and wrong things to do while also providing an avenue for people to share if they felt like they were under undue pressure, to let me be the one that removed those roadblocks and to support them through it rather than making these difficult decisions. And the team recovered and people understood. It was painful. It was shocking to everyone, but we survived it and we went on to continue to be one of the top teams.

Did you put anything in place afterwards to help make sure these events didn’t happen again?

Absolutely. We put some checks and balances in our system to protect us from this happening. It meant working on the operational side as well as from the sales side to have that check and balance internally. We added a compliance officer as a new position, and I myself became a six Sigma trainer, and really began to learn even better how to systemize the right actions to take.

Do you know how rare it is to hear somebody else talk about Six Sigma? One of my more popular by-lines over the years was Six Sigma and time sheets. I love working with Six Sigma companies because you can make the case for what you need to do it pretty easily if you know how to follow the process.

Yeah, I agree and I agree, I sort of geek out over that as well, and I’m pretty proud of that because I believe that it really shaped, it had a huge impact on shaping my career and how I view things.

Looking back, is there anything you would’ve changed or done differently?

I can’t say that I would have, because it was unknown to me.

I think I handled it in the best way that I possibly could, and I don’t think there’s anything that I would’ve done differently. Looking back, I wish that I had a way of monitoring some of what happened inevitably so that I could have caught it myself. Obviously it would have been better for me to catch it and report it rather than being called into the office and feeling like I was under trial as well, but no, there’s nothing differently that I could’ve done.

Beyond this great example, what do you see as some of the key PR ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

Honestly, from the political side of things, and I don’t mean just federal, and I’m not talking partisan, but government and local government, today if you scan headlines on ethics, you’ll see so many ethical challenges and you’ll see state ethics boards presenting issues. I believe that I read in, for example, in Tallahassee that there’s a backlog of 30 recommended orders from the state’s ethics board on the governor’s staff. So, you have in Louisiana, the city is seeking ethics opinions on employees that received payments from the reality show, Undercover Boss. I use government because it’s so high profile and it touches everyone, but also corporate ethics breaches are important.

One of the key challenges we see is that so often these ethical issues that are brought to the public’s attention sends a message that an agenda is more important than ethics. And that ethics decisions are made through the lens of the results. You have companies and the government that act in unethical ways, they have unethical policies, but they get a pass if the results are there. And they only don’t get a pass when the results fall apart, and then there’s punishment, and then you start to look at the ethical issues as a secondary thing.

It’s challenging because as PR people, we are the guardian of ethics. We have a duty to ensure that it is enforced. We have a duty to protect the clients, the organizations that we work with, as well as the publics that we serve. And I don’t think that is a gray issue, it’s pretty much a black or white issue. But when we are working in an environment where it’s seen that ethics doesn’t matter, if you’re getting the results over here, then we’ll just sweep this under the rug, that is dangerous.

So how do we fight that?

It’s hard, it’s tough, and I think that we have to have a louder voice. We have to educate, we have to advocate, we have to guide. In my opinion, having an ethical framework is not just a nice thing to have, it actually drives profitability.

Trust is critical to a company’s survival. If the public doesn’t trust you, then they’re not going to buy from you, so it’s bottom line dollars, and I think every CEO understands that language. Your company needs to make money or you don’t have a company. So how do you create trust? Will you create trust by having a framework where you can be trustworthy? That means if you do the right things and you have an ethical framework, and that will increase not only your trust externally, but internally.

When there’s trust internally, you have employees that are advocates for your organization, you have more cooperation, you have higher productivity, that results in happier external customers, and it means that they’re going to make the right decision. There are all kinds of statistics around this, you can look at the Edelman Trust Barometer for examples.

I think that our role is to draw the lines for corporations and to be the voices that are louder than people that saying, “Ethics is not so important.” We have to really take a harder stance. We have to speak up. There’s opportunities every day for us to talk about these issues to the public and to begin to educate them on, “Hey, this situation happened and here’s the way that it really should be handled. Here’s why that’s not okay.” And I think that we can’t get caught up, especially when it comes to politics, in the partisanship. Let’s lead people down the line of looking at things through a different lens, not through the lens of party, not through the lens of your favorite candidate or issues, but through an ethical lens. So I think that we can be agents of change.

Sometimes when you’re speaking out people don’t want to hear it, or they’re resistant to it. So how do you recommend going about building that trust?

Well, I think we equip professionals to be able to have these discussions, to be able to learn how to build those frameworks in their organizations so that they can be the advocates and they can educate. Professionals must speak in a language that is meaningful to an organization. If you just talk about ethics, it could fall on deaf ears, but when you translate it into language that they understand, then you can definitely move the needle and have influence. So, I do think that it takes a lot more education around practicing professionals on how to speak that way.

And honestly, organizations need to start holding the feet to the fire. There’ve been too many things that have happened that have gone on for far too long, and too many people have been impacted by unethical decisions. Everyone…everyone…the public included, whether you’re a PR professional or not, we need to start holding people accountable for their actions.

When you’re talking about we need to speak their language, what do you recommend or can you give an example of how you’ve done that?

Talk about ethics in a way that business leaders understand by talking about how do we drive the numbers and developing policies and checks and balances and having ethical crisis plans in place. Just like we do crisis communications plans, we should have ethical plans that include checklists.

I talk about protecting the company’s reputation, I talk about ensuring that our message aligns with vision and values and that they’re not just words, but that our actions are driving that, and how that ties to the bottom line. I talk about the concerns of their public, what’s resonating with them and the things that could be potentially a pitfall. It drives back to setting up things where things are done in an ethical manner without having to take a dive deep into ethics because they don’t care about that to be frank and honest about it, they really don’t, they just care about dollars. And so, you have to learn how to speak in dollars, you have to learn to speak in numbers, and we don’t do that well enough in PR.

I want to push back a little. I think some CEOs do care about it, and I think if you look at the high performing companies and the Ethisphere list those are the ones that get it and are performing well.

Definitely not all. I would love to believe that there’s more organizations that care than those that don’t.

And when you see it, a lot of the studies that are coming out there, it seems like it’s definitely moving in that direction, in particular with the next generation coming up, it’s getting to be much more important than it was for some of the prior generations.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you ever received?

My parents, my mother is particular, set a foundation for me, so I feel like I entered the workforce with a foundation of always doing the right thing. Because at the end of the day, you really have to live with those decisions, and so she really instilled in me to do the right thing regardless.

It doesn’t matter if someone’s watching, it doesn’t matter if you get caught, it doesn’t matter if anybody ever sees it, but always act with integrity and always do the ethical thing and you’ll never go wrong.

I’ve really tried to take that to heart and make decisions from a place of being ethical and doing the right thing even when it was challenging to do so because we all face that in big and small ways. And sometimes the easy path is to choose the wrong thing, and it’s the harder path to do the right thing. But I know that I need to wake up every day and be able to look myself in the mirror and know that I stood for integrity.

It’s simple advice, but it’s so tough for people to do. And I think that if you’re not aware of that, it can be easy sometimes to be seduced into making decisions that are “kind of okay” but that’s a slippery slope. One little decision can then put you on a path where before you know it, you’re no longer making ethical decisions and you’re no longer even thinking about it.

Is there anything else I didn’t ask you that you wanted to discuss?

PR professionals need to do a better job of upholding the banner of ethics. We don’t have these discussions enough. There are just not enough people shedding the light on the issues of ethics and educating them how we can truly incorporate this into the work we do and why it’s so important to do so. And so I encourage our professionals to really take this seriously and to become educated and to really think, not about when ethics are challenged, but how can you make ethics a part of your everyday job. And that means making it a part of your life, because as I have written about and talked about, we have to not have ethics be a uniform that we put on when we go to work, it has to be something that you live in believe and it really becomes built into the DNA of who you are.

Check out the full interview, with bonus content here 

Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
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Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the general manager of C+C's Boston office. C+C is a communications agency all about the good and purpose-driven brands. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA, drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of


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