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How to Respond When Your Superior Asks You to Do Something You’re Not Comfortable With

Protecting Your Values in the Face of Workplace Opposition

It’s important to know how to respond if your boss makes an unreasonable request that makes you feel uncomfortable. The key is to be prepared to deal with such situations.

Unreasonable requests can and generally should raise the ethics alarm clock each of us has. Many people know when a request is improper but not everyone responds to it by making ethical decisions.

Richard Bistrong, writing online for Fast Company, identifies five steps that you can use to protect your corporate, as well as personal values, while keeping your career goals on track.

  1. Reestablish the Direction of Your Moral Compass

Thinking things through is essential to directing your moral compass in the right direction. It helps to call a trusted advisor, family member, or friend to serve as an outlet to discuss the matter, including possible actions, and obtaining objective advice before deciding. Getting a second opinion always helps.

  1. Tap into Compassion

Ethical decision-making requires us to be compassionate and empathetic towards others. Absent the ethical values of care and concern, you will not be able to make the decision that respects the rights of others and considers them first and foremost in every ethical decision.

  1. Correct and Reframe

Looking at decisions from a different lens can help to focus on what’s most important, which is the ethical dimension of decision making. The Giving Voice to Values technique that is taught in hundreds of business schools and companies (for training purposes) around the world can help because it shows us how to put our personal values above all else. It also provides a mechanism to respond to reasons and rationalizations given by superiors to act otherwise.

  1. Attempt a Safe Yet Challenging Discussion

If you haven’t been able to resolve the matter in a timely manner, it may be time to go to someone higher up in the organization. Bistrong provides three options to find the right communication channel:

  • Directly messaging your ethics and compliance leader.
  • Escalating up a report within your function.
  • Using anonymous ethics hot-lines and other communication methods.
  1. Move On

There might come a time when you realize your personal values are not aligned with those of the organization you work for. If you have tried to raise issues of concern to no avail, it may be time to move on and look for a new job.

Resolving Ethical Conflicts Comments

The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) Global Fraud Survey consistently finds that having a hotline is one of the best ways to resolve ethical conflicts. Results of the survey show how difficult it is to make the ethical decision when the culture of an organization is not open to bringing matters of concern up the chain of command. The following results highlight the problem of being retaliated against for raising matters of concern within an organization. A good example is when higher-ups in the organization are not open to discussing financial fraud.

2021 Global Business Ethics Survey.


Survey Questions




 Global Median


% of employees that work in a strong ethics culture




% of employees who feel pressure to compromise ethical standards




% of employees who observed misconduct in the workplace




% of employees who were likely to report misconduct




% of employees who reported misconduct felt retaliation




Source: Credit: 2021 Global Business Ethics Survey.

Focusing on Making the Right Decision

It's important to provide an alternative course of action when you face these kinds of pressures in the workplace. Your superior may be open to other solutions if you have provided the reasons why it is the best way to go. Perhaps they were stuck on only one course of action and just needed alternatives to see the right way to go.

When I’m faced with an ethical dilemma in the workplace, I always ask myself three questions before deciding what to do:

  1. Would I be proud to defend my actions if questioned?
  2. How would I feel if a family member or close friend knew about what I was about to do?
  3. How would I feel if my decision was discussed on social media?

The idea is to assess whether you would be proud of your decision in these tough situations. Does it conform to what you know to be the most ethical decision?

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on May 18, 2022. You can sign up for Steve’s newsletter and learn more about his activities on his website  ( and by following him on Facebook at: and on Twitter at:

Steve has written a book on being a more ethical person, Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior. It is available at Amazon or on his website.