When Your Boss Asks You to Do Something Unethical
by Rick Brenner
When your boss asks you to look the other way, or to actively take part in unethical activity, you probably feel uncomfortable — with good reason. Can you find a way to live with yourself?
What if your boss asks you — in complete confidence, naturally — to look the other way, or to actively take part in unethical activity? Not criminal exactly, but "gray" — problematic acts that are really tempting but which you know in your heart are wrong. Falsifying status reports, juggling expenses from one account to another, intentionally skewing estimates. How do you handle these situations?
We're all unique. There is no one right answer for every one of us, but usually there's at least one right answer for you, one that gives you peace. Keep three things in mind:
- In for a penny, in for a pound
- Once you've committed an ethical breach, anyone who knows about it can try to use it as a lever to manipulate you in the future. You're especially vulnerable if your boss is apprehended, because nothing then prevents your boss from revealing your involvement. It's easy to imagine situations in which your boss could actually benefit by doing so — maybe even claiming that you were the sole or initiating perpetrator.
- Forever is a long time
- Anyone who knows about what you've done might someday reveal it. If you behave unethically, you're betting that you'll be long gone before anyone reveals the truth. In most cases, that's a bad bet.
- Who do you trust?
- Don't expect ethical treatment in the future from anyone who asks you to behave unethically now. Don't trust your boss with your reputation, when you know that your boss is capable of ethical breaches.
Staying in connection with those who make us feel ethically uncomfortable is difficult. Here are four strategies.
knows about it
has a lever
- Stall for as long as you can. You never know what might happen while you delay — you or your boss might be reassigned, or the whole company might be restructured, or maybe your boss will see the light. At the very least you can get a job search going.
- Keep your head down
- Avoid actually participating, while at the same time avoiding confrontation. If you confront, unless you have a very strong, collaborative relationship with your boss, you're history. You might as well resign.
- Work out another solution. Whatever was motivating your boss to take the shortcut might have an ethical alternative solution. Find one if you can, and get permission to try it, using the argument that "it might work, and it's cleaner if it does." In the meantime, implement the "Get Out" strategy.
- Get out
- You probably can't quit your job on the spot, even though you might want to. Find another job in another company, or transfer internally. These are difficult options, but consider the alternative — fear, anxiety, sleeplessness.
Once your boss crosses your ethical line, peace will be hard to find — until you find a new boss. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Ethics at Work
- Non-Workplace Politics
- When we bring national or local political issues into the workplace — especially the divisive issues — we risk disrupting our relationships, our projects, and the company itself.
- The Power of Presuppositions
- Presuppositions are powerful tools for manipulating others. To defend yourself, know how they're used, know how to detect them, and know how to respond.
- Email Ethics
- Ethics is the system of right and wrong that forms the foundation of civil society. Yet, when a new technology arrives, explicitly extending the ethical code seems necessary — no matter how civil the society. And so it is with email.
- Some Things I've Learned Along the Way
- When I have an important insight, I write it down in a little notebook. Here are some items from my personal collection.
- On Organizational Coups d'Etat
- If your boss is truly incompetent, or maybe even evil, organizing a coup d'etat might have crossed your mind. In most cases, it's wise to let it cross on through, all the way. Think of alternative ways out.
See also Ethics at Work and Managing Your Boss for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 4: Bottlenecks: Part I
- Some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks." The people around them repeatedly find themselves stuck, awaiting responses or decisions. Why does this happen and what are the costs? Available here and by RSS on February 4
- And on February 11: Bottlenecks: Part II
- When some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks," they expose the organization to risks. Managing those risks is a first step to ending the bottlenecking pattern. Available here and by RSS on February 11
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