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Ethical Challenges in the Workplace

What Should You Do When the Boss Wants You to Do Something Unethical?

It happens from time to time that your boss may ask you to do something that you know in your gut is wrong. You probably feel compelled to do it to avoid a negative reaction from your boss, one that might lead to retaliatory behaviors. You have that queasy feeling and that’s your cue to resist.

How can you overcome your fear? One suggestion is to find an outlet to express your concerns and document your feelings along the way. Keeping a journal is a good idea because it becomes proof of your intentions, reservations, and any communications with your boss on the contentious matter. You never know if and when such a conflict blows up and you want to be prepared to defend your actions.

Some of the more common situations when a boss might expect you to do something unethical is to mislead a customer in order to make the sale. How many times have we walked into a car dealership, been told one thing by the salesperson, and then something changes when we go to close the deal?

Another example is when a boss demands that you cut corners to complete the manufacturing of a product even though it hasn’t been 100 percent inspected before being shipped to the customer. Perhaps your boss takes this shortcut because past history indicates a very low rate of defective product. Here, you want to avoid going along at all costs because it’s your reputation on the line. Guess what will happen if the customer receives a defective part of product? Your boss will blame you for sloppy work.

The most serious kind of situation is when a boss asks you to commit/go along with financial fraud, and suggests that if you don’t there will be consequences. Now, the boss won’t come straight out and use the “r” word – retaliation – because that can get the boss and the company in trouble under a variety of laws, such as the False Federal Claims Act and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.  Once again, it’s your reputation on the line and you risk being blamed for the falsehood if you stay silent.

One thing to avoid at all costs is the age-old directive of: “See no Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil.” You can’t make believe it never happened and expect to ever reach closure or that your boss won’t ask you to go along again and again.


Being an ethical person in the workplace seems to be harder all the time because of pressures to perform and competition from other companies. To me the underlying cause is a lack of morals to begin with. All too many people approach ethics from a relativistic perspective. That is, what is right or wrong in each situation is relevant to the facts unique to that situation. So, let’s say it’s year-end and your boss asks you to ship the product before its completely inspected, the argument the boss might make is by prematurely shipping it the company will earn higher revenues at year-end, increase profits for the year, and bump up bonuses for employees. You don’t want to be the one who kills it for your fellow employees and yourself. However, the boss might not push as hard if it is the beginning of the year where profits are unknown and pressures for high bonuses not active as yet.

My advice in these situations is always to stand your ground and not go along with the initial request made by your boss. Otherwise, you might make a decision that you will regret later because once that first step is taken, you begin the slide down the proverbial ethical slippery slope where it’s difficult to reverse course and reclaim the moral high ground.

Blog posted on July 12, 2017 by Steve Mintz, Professor Emeritus, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Steve blogs under the pseudonym, Ethics Sage. Check out my website at: