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
- Budget Shenanigans: Swaps
- When projects run over budget, managers face a temptation to use creative accounting to address the problem. The budget swap is one technique for making ends meet. It distorts organizational data, and it's just plain unethical.
- Currying Favor
- The behavior of the office kiss-up drives many people bats. It's more than annoying, though — it does real harm to the organization. What is the behavior?
- When Others Curry Favor
- When peers curry favor with the boss, many of us feel contempt, an urge for revenge, anger, or worse. Trying to stop those who curry favor probably isn't an effective strategy. What is?
- Ethical Influence: Part II
- When we influence others as they're making tough decisions, it's easy to enter a gray area. How can we be certain that our influence isn't manipulation? How can we influence others ethically?
- Telephonic Deceptions: Part II
- Deception at work probably wasn't invented at work. Most likely it is a continuation of deception in the rest of life. But the technologies of the modern workplace offer new opportunities to practice the art. Here's Part II of a handy guide for telephonic self-defense.
See also Ethics at Work and Managing Your Boss for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming November 26: Ten Approaches to Managing Project Risks: Part II
- Managing risk entails coping with unwanted events that might or might not happen, and which can be costly if they do happen. Here's Part II of our exploration of coping strategies for unwanted events. Available here and by RSS on November 26.
- And on December 3: Ten Approaches to Managing Project Risks: Part III
- Project risk management strategies are numerous, but these ten strategies are among the most common. Here are the last three of the ten strategies in this little catalog. Available here and by RSS on December 3.
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