Figure Out What's Next

Exit Strategy: Dealing with Unethical Requests from Your Boss

career change michelle laurey purposeful living May 25, 2018
unethical bosses

by Michelle Laurey

drawing by Peter Axtell

This circumstance is one of the most stressful ones you can experience at work.   

Maybe you have been lucky during your career to have had great leaders. They display themselves in situations such as treating employees with respect, providing means to get the job done and generating confidence and trust. Perhaps the most grateful you can be of your boss is when you are dealing with the opposite — the one who doesn't support you and you think is asking, maybe even ordering you, to do the unethical.

What do you do then? 

In this post, we'll guide you through the options and steps you should take to protect your integrity and future. This circumstance is one of the most stressful ones you can experience at work.    

The Boss Establishes the Culture of the Company

It's true that the tone of running the things comes from the top, not so much in clear directives but in how the boss acts and treats others. There is an “us against them” undercurrent in every operation, which allows a sense of camaraderie and protection.

So, if your boss asks you, for instance, to cover for her by saying she is out of the office when a vendor stops by, but she is there, you may feel somewhat uncomfortable, but you probably go along.

However, unethical behavior can extend far beyond simple “white lies” to morally troubling issues that can create one of the most stressful situations you as an employee can face.

Ethical Dilemmas

Some may not believe in a hierarchy of ethical violations, preferring to consider an issue either right or wrong, but the following examples pose significant problems for you if encountered at work:

  • Deceitfulness for profit — Your boss may benefit from ducking a meeting, but if the motive behind is the company's or personal profit, you've entered a whole different realm. Take, for instance, a situation where your boss is pitching a big proposal for a new contract and manipulates the numbers so your company comes out on top.

Far worse, say one of your products poses a danger to consumers, but your boss sits on the information while trying to push the product to market. You cannot sit idly by with deceit such as this.

  • Sabotaging the opposition — Business can be a rough game both intra-company when rivals compete for the same position and out in the marketplace. There are rules of engagement, but decent people do not cross certain lines.
  • Bribery, kickbacks, and illegal behavior— Some actions push the envelope past ethical dilemmas into potential criminal behavior. You've probably heard ignorance is no excuse in breaking the law, and that's true, but most people know what's against the law, and playing along is tantamount to playing with fire.

  • Establishing a Course of Action
    Short of the extremes of doing nothing and going along on one hand and immediately quitting on the other,  you should explore several options to find the best course of action to protect your interests.

  • Just the Facts Ma'am
    If you're contemplating what to do in this position, you know how important it is in your life and to your future. Consequently, it's vital to be certain of possessing the facts, and you have everything exactly right.

Hopefully, you have some written confirmation of events, conversations, e-mails, texts and perhaps evidence from other coworkers of the same or similar experiences.

Don't speculate or add unsubstantiated information — just collect the facts as you know them.

Get it in Writing

If you've found out the facts, you may believe the right move is to proceed with a complaint. Remember the potential stakes are high for everyone involved.

Yes, your future may well hang in the balance, but the company has a lot to lose as well, and it has greater resources than you as an individual. You must make your case factually, with proof of those facts.

If possible at all, ask your boss for a repeat of his order or direction in an e-mail or other such writing. Perhaps you had it wrong, and the matter may resolve itself. Your inquiry might make the boss re-think the issue and change course. Or, she will provide the writing you need to prove your case.

Exhaust In-House Remedies First

To preserve your rights if you need to file a lawsuit and go to court, it will almost always be necessary to allow your company to address your complaint through its established in-house protocols.

Many will consider this process to be a waste of time — why am I complaining to those who have created or benefit from covering up the problem?

Often this is true, but sometimes you will be surprised.

The human resources department may well see your point, investigate the situation and come down on the side of justice. If not, you have completed another hurdle you must take on.

Prepare to Leave

Even should this be your dream job in every other way, how your boss has acted may be a deal breaker. If, when, how, and under what circumstances an employment relationship terminates is so varied, that to say each is unique is an understatement.  

You need to prepare your body, mind, and your finances for what may be inevitable at some point. Maybe you'll never be unemployed but prepare for it. Changing jobs because of the unethical requests is hard enough, so try to make the transition easier by preparing financially.

This is where your emergency fund comes to play. Save a little extra, put out a few feelers and consider other career options given your background and expertise.

Filing a Complaint

If you arrive at this juncture either under the radar or with some knowledge at work you are ruffling feathers, this is a clear crossroad. You cannot un-ring the bell–you and the boss/company are now adversaries. It is difficult for many to imagine prevailing after a complaint and continuing working there, but it does happen. 

Remember, however, if the boss fires you or discriminates against you at work after filing a complaint, that behavior may constitute another legal claim and a potential lawsuit.

Question: How would you deal with unethical requests from your boss?


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