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


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
An unethical computer user

An unethical computer user

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.

Once you've
committed an
ethical breach,
anyone who
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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Is It Really Resistance?  Next Issue
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Related articles

More articles on Ethics at Work:

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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.
A horseEthical 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?
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?
Duma, a wolf at the UK Wolf Conservation Trust, rolls to capture a scent atop a moundTelephonic 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.
The molecular structure of Oleic Acid (a cis fat, top), and Elaidic Acid (a trans fat, bottom)Some Truths About Lies: Part III
Detecting lies by someone intent on misrepresentation is an important skill for executives, managers, project managers, and just about anyone involved in knowledge-oriented organizations. Here's Part III of our little collection of lie detection techniques.

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

Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout

Harry S. Truman (front, second from left) and Joseph Stalin (front, left) meeting at the Potsdam Conference on July 18, 1945Coming December 2: Suppressing Dissent: Part II
Disagreeing with the majority in a meeting, or in some cases, merely disagreeing with the Leader, can lead to isolation and other personal difficulties. Here is Part II of a set of tactics used by Leaders who choose not to tolerate differences of opinion, emphasizing the meeting context. Available here and by RSS on December 2.
Fog offshore near Cabrillo National Monument, CaliforniaAnd on December 9: Clearing Conflict Fog
At times, groups can become so embroiled in destructive conflict that conventional conflict resolution becomes ineffective. How does this happen? What can we do about it? Available here and by RSS on December 9.

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