When the Boss Wants You to Do Something Unethical

Published July 24, 2017

Maybe you're asked to mislead a customer. Maybe you're told to lie to a client or take a shortcut you know would produce an inferior product.

When your boss puts you in a situation that compromises your ethics, none of the options seem particularly great. Go along with the unethical behavior and you become complicit. Report it to a higher-up or outside organization and you could face retaliation.

But it's certainly possible to raise your concerns without harming your job status or relationships at work. Here's what you might consider before airing your complaints.

Start with your boss

First you should make sure you understand what, exactly, your boss is asking of you. Let's rule out a misunderstanding.

Explain why the request made you uneasy. If you can, cite specific company policies that it seems to defy.

Paul Fiorelli, the director of Cintas Institute for Business Ethics at Xavier University, suggested using plain language like: "You've asked me to do this, but if I did this it would violate this policy we have. You're not asking me to do that, are you?"

In many cases, it's likely the boss hadn't considered his or her request unethical. Citing specific reasons for your objection could help them see why the request is unreasonable or could solidify that yes, they really do want you to do something you're not willing to do.

Either way, you might solve the problem if you can offer a more ethical alternative that would produce similar results.

Escalating your complaint

If it's crystal-clear your boss is asking for unethical conduct, or if you don't feel comfortable discussing it with your boss in the first place, the next steps depend a lot on your company.

In larger organizations, there could be someone dedicated to receiving complaints from employees like you. It could be a compliance officer, general counsel, auditor or someone in human resources. It could be the person one or two levels up from your boss.

You might also need to ask: If I complain, will anyone care or will anything change? If you think management would want to sweep your complaint under the rug, assuming the risks of complaining internally might not be worth it.

"Any time the firm's senior management is financially benefiting from the misconduct, they may not want to know that it is occurring," said Bryan Stikeleather, a professor at the University of South Carolina who has studied financial incentives for whistleblowing.

Some companies offer money to entice employees to report bad behavior, which can signal that they're serious about correcting it. But such monetary incentives can sometimes make employees less likely to report, Stikeleather said; the rewards can decrease whistleblowers' sense of responsibility, making it feel less like a moral obligation.

If escalating internally doesn't work, or you're in a small enough organization that there's no one to hear your protest but your boss, you might have to go outside the organization to the government or media.

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Consider the risks

It's easy for us to say that you should "do the right thing" and flatly refuse any unethical demands. But in reality, the decision is often more complex than that, and there are very real risks you could face.

Fifty-three percent of employees in the United States who reported misconduct in their companies said they experienced some form of retaliation, according to the 2016 National Business Ethics survey by the Ethics and Compliance Initiative. That could include receiving worse evaluations and being passed up for promotions and raises.

At the very least, there could be social costs in whistleblowing. Some people have found themselves uninvited from happy hours or given cold shoulders in the hallway.

Mary-Hunter McDonnell, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said at least one high-stakes whistleblower she interviewed for her research had regrets.

"He said if he could relive it he wouldn't have done it because it devastated his social life," she said. "He was no longer invited to join the kind of charitable boards he had been invited to join, or any of the kind of corporate social networks that he had been involved in. He was basically boxed out of the social world he had created for himself as part of his job."

If all else fails, leave

No one wants it to come to this, and it may not be practical advice if you need the paycheck. But if you're in position to find another job, this might be good reason to head for the door.

You could even try one last staunch refusal as an ultimatum.

"I think you have to just say no if it's against your own moral values. You can't be forced to do something," McDonnell said. "The worst thing that could happen to you is you'll be fired, but you can't really stay at a job that's going to ask you to transgress your morals anyway."