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

by

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
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:

A thiefLooking the Other Way
Sometimes when we notice wrongdoing, and we aren't directly involved, we don't report it, and we don't intervene. We look the other way. Typically, we do this to avoid the risks of making a report. But looking the other way is also risky. What are the risks of looking the other way?
A Julius Caesar coinOn 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.
Archibald Cox, Special Watergate ProsecutorDifficult Decisions
Some decisions are difficult because they trigger us emotionally. They involve conflicts of interest, yielding to undesirable realities, or possibly pain and suffering for the deciders or for others. How can we make these emotionally difficult decisions with greater clarity and better outcomes?
A field of Cereal RyeApproval Ploys
If you approve or evaluate proposals or requests made by others, you've probably noticed patterns approval seekers use to enhance their success rates. Here are some tactics approval seekers use.
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.

Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout

A Celebes Crested MacaqueComing July 8: Ethical Debate at Work: Part I
When we decide issues at work on any basis other than the merits, we elevate the chances of making bad decisions. Here are some guidelines for ethical debate. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
President Obama meets with Congressional leadersAnd on July 15: Ethical Debate at Work: Part II
Outcomes of debates at work sometimes favor one party, not only at the expense of the other or others, but also at the expense of the organization. Here's Part II of a set of guidelines for steering debates toward wise outcomes. Available here and by RSS on July 15.

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