How to deal with a boss who asks you to do something unethical

Dear WW: I recently moved to a new job and my new boss has done a few things that make me uncomfortable. He’s embellished sales figures for our division and made promises to potential customers that he knows are unrealistic. He then asked me to back him up. When I balked, he said, “that’s business. Everybody does it.” Am I being na├»ve? Or is he being unethical? FEELING SMELLY AT WORK

Dear FEELING,

Recently my family came home from the local animal shelter, proud parents of a dog and cat. Watching them play gave me insight on how to deal with your boss. Like all overindulgent parents, we immediately bought loads of doggie and kitty toys for them to play with. Neither animal “bit.” But it was fascinating to see how they responded! The cat, ignoring the store bought toys, occupied herself for hours batting around a wadded up piece of paper. The dog, meanwhile, lay bored and miserable-looking in the middle of a pile of bones. “It’s amazing,” my wife commented, “how a cat can make something out of nothing and a dog can make nothing out of something.”

Well, in dealing with your boss you need to take the cat and dog routines two steps further. You need to figure out if there are times when you need to make nothing out of nothing, and other times when you need to make something out of something. Here’s what I mean:

How sensitive is your personal ethics meter? It’s possible that your boss is right: exaggerations and promises are business as usual. Discuss his actions with others, both inside and outside your company, to see how they would rate them. It may be that they’re nothing and that you should make nothing of them. On the other hand, if it turns out he is asking you to do something unethical, you’ll want to do something about it. Try asking yourself the following questions:

Can you turn your dilemma into a trilemma? Right now you perceive that you have two options: do what your boss asked, or refuse. But it may be that there is a third, or even a fourth, option. For instance, could you “back up” your boss’s statements in a way that is closer to the truth but still accomplishes your boss’s goals?

Can you trade this assignment for another? Ask your boss to give you the toughest problem in the department if he’ll relieve you of having to back him up. This might not help you sleep better at night, but at least it won’t be your conscience that’s keeping you awake.

Of course, there’s also another solution. If this kind of challenge continues to “dog” you, you might want to find a new boss. It’s a daunting prospect, I know. But at least it will prevent cat fights with this boss and keep you out of the ethical doghouse.

Working Wounded poll:

Which of the following options would you pursue if your current boss asked you to do something smelly at work?

  • Say “yes” (always ready to lend a hand), 5%
  • Talk it over with him (rather than taking a stand), 44%
  • Say “no” (and risk getting canned), 50%.

Working Wounded strategy:

Janet in Bellevue won the prize for the best response: “I was once asked to lie to a customer. But I told my boss, if it was so easy for me to lie to her, how would you ever know if I was telling you the truth. He backed down. Sometimes you’ve just gotta take a stand.”

Bob Rosner is a best-selling author, speaker and internationally syndicated columnist. Sherrie Campbell is a relationship and business professional, having applied her counseling background in a variety of challenging organizational settings. They’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic, especially if you have better ideas than they do. Also check out their complete column archive at workmash.org, “The Boss’s Survival Guide” and “Gray Matters: The workplace survival guide.” Send your questions or comments to bob@workmash.org.

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