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January 17, 2001 Volume 1, Issue 3
 
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When Your Boss Asks You to Do Something Unethical

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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
A burglarOnce 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.

Once you've
committed an
ethical breach,
anyone who
knows about it
has a lever
Delay
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.
Compromise
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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Is It Really Resistance?  Next Issue
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Related articles

More articles on Ethics at Work:

Electronic MailboxEmail 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.

Lt. Col. John Paul VannManaging Personal Risk Management
When we bias organizational decisions to manage our personal risks, we're sometimes acting ethically — and sometimes not. What can we do to limit personal risk management?

The interior of an Apple store, location unknownPersonnel-Sensitive Risks: Part I
Some risks and the plans for managing them are personnel-sensitive in the sense that disclosure can harm the enterprise or its people. Since most risk management plans are available to a broad internal audience, personnel-sensitive risks cannot be managed in the customary way. Why not?

An actual red herringSome Truths About Lies: Part IV
Extended interviews provide multiple opportunities for detecting lies by people intent on deception. Here's Part IV of our little collection of lie detection techniques.

A dog wagging her tailMore Things I've Learned Along the Way
Some entries from my personal collection of useful and not-so-useful insights.

See also Ethics at Work and Managing Your Boss for more related articles.

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One dysfunction of face-to-face meetings is the Trip to Abilene, which leads groups to make decisions no members actually support. It can afflict virtual meetings, too, even more easily. Available here and by RSS on March 4.
Brendan Nyhan and Jason ReiflerAnd on March 11: Historical Debates at Work
One obstacle to high performance in teams is the historical debate — arguing about who said what and when, or who agreed to what and when. Here are suggestions for ending and preventing historical debates. Available here and by RSS on March 11.

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