What to do when something at work goes against your moral code — and your boss doesn't care

 I'm a bank procurement manager who's dealing with a difficult situation with one of my colleagues, "Melanie." A few months ago, Melanie told several of my team members a vicious lie about one of my direct report's performance and insinuated that this person would be let go. Melanie told people not to say anything and threatened that if they did, it would affect their career, as she has "friends" in high places. (Of course, my team is very loyal and told me about it right away.)

My direct report is devastated. I tried twice to meet with Melanie to ask her why she lied, but she canceled at the last minute both times. We work a hybrid schedule, so she's able to avoid me.

Instead, I went to my manager, who's also Melanie's manager. He brushed me off and made a joke, saying that Melanie didn't mean anything by it. I pressed, and he eventually recognized that I maybe had a point if Melanie had, in fact, lied but also hinted that Melanie would be moving on soon, so the whole thing was moot. I've since learned through the grapevine that while Melanie was going to take a different job, she'd been asked to stay with us because we're short-staffed.

Since this whole thing started, I've felt anxious and stressed, and I'm not sleeping. My team is also feeling the strain of not understanding why Melanie, who blatantly lied and gossiped about one of their close colleagues, still has a job. I'm frustrated with my boss and the company for tolerating and even enabling this kind of behavior. Is there anything I can do?

Can I just say, wow? Your organization has more intrigue and drama than Waystar Royco. I don't mean to make light of what's happened, but I will point out that even at a time when the US surgeon general is sounding alarm bells about the growing toll that toxic workplaces take on our mental health, yours — complete with a conniving colleague, apathetic boss, and ever-churning rumor mill — sounds like a particularly prickly place. 

The distress you describe is understandable and even has a name: moral injury, the technical term for when you see, participate in, or fail to prevent behavior or situations that go against your beliefs about what's right. Most research related to moral injury concerns members of the military, as combat and war create situations that might conflict with people's moral and ethical values. But, of course, you can feel morally injured in all sorts of settings — including at work.

Cara de Lange, an author and workplace-well-being consultant in the UK, told me she believed moral stress and injury could contribute to burnout, which the World Health Organization defines as a syndrome "resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed."

That it's especially likely to occur when a moral transgression — be it a colleague's betrayal, an unfair firing, or failure to act on a whistleblowing complaint — is compounded by a lack of validation and support from managers and colleagues. Symptoms include exhaustion, increased cynicism about work, and reduced productivity.

Your anguish, for instance, is due to not only Melanie's initial lie but also your boss' apparent indifference.

"There's a value misalignment," de Lange said. "You've spoken up about an injustice, and your concerns weren't addressed."

It's natural to be worried about your team members, she added.

"But you need to make a special effort to balance your urge to protect them with a need to protect yourself," she said.

There's no easy remedy for moral injury. But Chuck Wisner, a leadership coach and the author of "The Art of Conscious Conversations," told me that there are several actions you can take to start healing.

First, gather your thoughts. "Write down what you're thinking and experiencing — get it out of your mushy head and onto paper so you can take a hard look at your emotions instead of letting them have a hold on you," he said.

Reflect on your desires, concerns, standards, and the power dynamics at play. For example, you want to be a good leader and take care of your team, and your standards of decency dictate that colleagues shouldn't lie and that bosses should be engaged and supportive. 

The goal of the exercise is to get clarity. You can't control other people and their behavior. You can control only how you respond. You also don't know the full story. It might take weeks or months to see where Melanie ends up. Her fate is out of your hands, and you need to accept that.

Next, talk to your team. A little distance on the matter will help you be more dispassionate, Wisner said. Ask your team how they feel — not to vent but rather to encourage honest and open communication. Wisner also recommends saying something like, "While we can't change what happened, it doesn't affect the great work we're doing and it doesn't change the fact that I will go to bat for us."

"Make sure they know you have their back."

Finally, revisit the issue with your boss when you're in the right headspace. Lay out your position in a calm, level-headed way, and then ask for his latest thinking. He might say he was in the wrong for dismissing your concerns and apologizing. Or he might brush you off again and reveal himself to be a political animal, out for only himself. 

In that case, it might be time to look for opportunities within your organization — assuming it's not a viper pit all around — or elsewhere.

"Exploring your options is mentally healthy because you start to think about what's possible," Wisner said. 

Don't needlessly tough it out at your company. Remember, you're not stuck with a bad boss or rotten colleagues. There's a big world out there.

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