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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Kim Strom-Gottfried talks about doing the right thing in the workplace

Kim Strom-Gottfried talks about common ethical issues that emerge in a university setting.

As a social work researcher, Kim Strom-Gottfried has studied moral courage for much of her career. She has surveys and statistical data on the topic and has heard first-hand from many people about the struggle of dealing with the ethics of their colleagues and co-workers.

But perhaps her grandmother said it best: You know better than you do.

With a wide-ranging presentation titled “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” Strom-Gottfried, the University’s director of ethics education and policy management, led the first Carolina Conversation of the new year on the first day of classes, Jan. 10.

The recent #MeToo and #TimesUp social media movements concerning sexual harassment have brought attention to some workplace cultures where bad behavior is often tolerated, ignored or rationalized rather than reported.

“It seemed awfully fitting that we kick off this year’s discussion talking about something that I think is permeating throughout the world,” said G. Rumay Alexander, the University’s chief diversity officer and associate vice chancellor of diversity and inclusion, in her introductory remarks.

Indeed, Strom-Gottfried shared data to show incivility permeates even the seemingly civilized world of academia. In a 2016 survey of more than 830 faculty members in the United States, Canada and Britain, 64 percent reported being targeted by faculty incivility and 77 percent reported witnessing someone else being targeted.

Strom-Gottfried shared data to show incivility permeates even the seemingly civilized world of academia.

January’s Carolina Conversation was an opportunity for faculty, staff and students to express their own views about when and how to respond to harassment, bullying, deceit, bigotry, hostility and other bad behavior in the workplace.

“I can see some people are taking a trip down bad memory lane,” Strom-Gottfried said. Sometimes it’s the outsider or the new person who sees workplace dysfunction the most clearly, she said. “You get there and you think, ‘This is Crazytown.’ And the other person says, ‘No, that’s how we are.’”

At breaks in the presentation, attendees huddled in the cozy sofas and chairs of the Student Union Aquarium Lounge to talk about their own experiences and concerns, then shared their thoughts with the larger group.

A recurring theme expressed by the small groups was the difficulty in responding in a way appropriate in scale to an offense.

“We were talking about how it feels like has to be this ‘all or nothing’ decision,” said one woman, “that it either has to be this huge intervention when instead you could just talk to the person.”

Others spoke of these concerns: Is this a systemic problem or an individual one? Is this a behavior that you are willing to overlook because of a person’s other qualities? Is taking action the best thing for the individual? For the group? Will there be backlash or retaliation?

There are many reasons people don’t speak up when they see others behaving badly, Strom-Gottfried said, including fear, an overemphasis on respect for authority or a feeling of futility.

But there are also some important reasons for doing the right thing, she added. “Because it’s who we want to be and how we want to live. Because we are role models for others.”

By taking action—big or small—we encourage others to act and, ideally, the effect will be an overall improvement in the culture. “We are about as ethical as the people around us,” Strom-Gottfried said. “The stronger the norms, the less you have to legislate.”

Strom-Gottfried also called attention to four key resources at Carolina for those who want information or advice about ethics in the workplace: the Office of Ethics Education and Policy Management, the Carolina Ethics Line (866-294-8688), the University Ombuds Office and Safe@UNC.