What Do You Do When Your Boss Is Unethical?

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The other day, someone asked me about the last time my ethics had been tested at work and how I reacted.

I wasn’t sure how to respond. It’s a good question, and I wanted to answer it. Still, I hesitated to reveal too much about some of the less-than-honest bosses I’ve reported to in the last two decades.

These are bosses who lied, gossiped about their staff to other staff, broke confidences, fudged numbers to governmental agencies, botched payroll tax withholdings and covered it up, and willfully and recklessly turned a blind eye to leadership abuse — for starters.

The truth is, HR folks get their ethics tested on a regular basis. However, that doesn’t make it easy to deal with.

When your boundaries are tested

I’ve written about boundary issues more than once, and the reason I write so much on the topic is that I believe boundary violations are at the heart of much workplace unhappiness.

And of all the ways a boss can cross the line, one of the most troublesome is when he or she requests that we compromise our ethical code.

Observing an unethical boss in action is unsettling enough; being expected to participate can be excruciating. We know what’s right, but we hesitate to do it. Why?

Here’s why:

  • Your boss makes it sound reasonable — Government bureaucrats and their nonsensical rules! We could never be 100 percent compliant no matter how hard we try, and no one really expects us to try. So, let’s fudge some stuff and move on. Everybody does it, nobody cares, and we have customers to serve/a mission to fulfill/shareholders to appease, etc. This small transgression (if you even want to call it that) is nothing compared to the greater good that’s being accomplished by us.
  • Your boss knows more than you do — Your gut is telling you loud and clear that something is off, but your boss pooh-poohs your concerns with some management mumbo jumbo that (kind of) convinces you that your gut is mistaken and that you don’t know enough about (fill-in-the-blank) to make an accurate assessment of the situation.
  • Fear — You fear that standing in opposition to your boss will cost you something you hold dear, such as your boss’ approval, coveted assignments, a promotion, or even your job.
  • Peer pressure — Nobody else has a problem doing X, what makes you so special?
  • Desire to get along — Truth be told, you don’t feel like you’re getting paid enough to fight these kinds of battles. Let your boss do whatever he or she wills. You’ll make sure to cover your rear should the you-know-what hits the you-know-what.
  • Desire to get ahead — You tell yourself that if this is what it takes to advance within the company, then this is what it takes. You’re only following orders, after all.

Well, here’s the problem. (Actually, there are two problems.)

  • Problem 1 — If you’re the decent sort (and most people are) eventually your conscience will get the better of you, and you’ll begin to resent an employer who asks things of you that shouldn’t be asked, and that’s only after you start hating yourself.
  • Problem 2 — Unethical boundary pushers are never content to hit you up once and call it a day. When they realize you’re willing to play ball, they’ll come back time and again, assuming your willingness to participate in the unsavory.

Here’s what you can do

So, what can you do about your unethical boss?

  • Politely say no. Now is not the time to hurl forth a heated stream of righteous indignation your manager’s way about what an immoral jerk he is. Nope. Instead, something like “Hmmm … I’m not comfortable back dating this disciplinary memo, because it’s unethical” is a better bet. Your boss won’t like it, but can she really disagree?
  • Find a compromise. If there’s a way to meet your boss’ objective without sliver-ing over to the dark side, your job is to find that way. You’ll keep your boss off your back and your conscience clear, and that’s a win-win.
  • Find another job. This is the least attractive option, I’ll grant you, but if your values and the values of your boss/organization are seriously out of whack, a separation is inevitable. Whether your boss gets tired of hearing your “no” or you get tired of his (or her) sleazy ways, something, at some point, is gonna give.
  • File a complaint. If things get really bad, you may want to have a chat with someone in HR (assuming you aren’t the top person in HR). If there is no one else, and you have good reason to believe your boss’s boss is fine with the status quo, you might want to consider filing a complaint outside the company (and consulting an attorney). Of course, a step this drastic can have major consequences, so make sure your ducks are in a row first. And that brings me to …
  • CYA. Let’s say your boss remains firm in his opinion that creating a file after the fact to justify disciplinary action is morally upright. Okay. Document the entire conversation and then place your notes in a nice safe place, because it’s not unheard of for HR folks to be held personally liable in lawsuits and that’s what I’d call adding insult to injury in a case like this. Later, you’ll want to have a heart to heart with yourself about whether you want to work in a place that has so little regard for your professional opinion and (perhaps) the law, but first things first.
  • Start a revolution. Are you one of those rare HR folks with real power? Congratulations! Maybe you’re in the perfect position to persuade other leaders within your organization that an Ethics Committee would be a great idea. Sometimes all employees need to do the right thing is their employer’s permission.

When you routinely deal in rules, policies, and people (as HR pros do), ethical dilemmas are bound to occur, and everyone working in HR should expect them.

However, there’s a big difference between facing an ethical dilemma and facing a boss who wants to resolve the dilemma in an unethical manner.

That said, how you face that boss will mark you forever, so decide wisely.

  • Jane

    I was recently in this situation and politely said that I was not comfortable complying with the request and did file an ethics complaint with a third party independent organization. What happened? I was given a last and final warning — which also happened to be the first time any performance issues had been raised. The so called independent third party turned me in to the head HR Director who is pals with my boss. I’m now being shunned and many of my projects have been reassigned. It’s not a question of if I’ll be leaving the company but when. Would I do it again? ABSOLUTELY!! I have to be able to live with myself and karma will eventually take care of others.

    • Crystal Spraggins

      Wow. Kudos to you and good luck with whatever comes next! Standing up as you did is not for the faint of heart, and it’s a damn shame when HR can’t be trusted in situations like this. Makes me think about Carol’s article. http://www.tlnt.com/2014/04/17/its-time-for-us-to-be-brutally-honest-about-hr/

    • robert rodemich

      good for you , and if everyone stood up for what is right and not just turn there heads then bosses would not get away with this .. im kind of old school do me wrong or disrespect then I would have no problem putting the gloves on , win or lose would not matter so this society of wanting to handle everything in the courts stumps me , because if people knew that there actions could end up in a ass whooping then those same scandalous people would think twice before taking that action , but in todays world there is nothing they have to worry about , there is no pride honor or respect anymore . I made a huge mistake by getting involved with this lady at work who was married , and I knew I was in the wrong at the very least because she was married, and it should not of mattered what her song and dance was, I also knew that I may have to take a beating and I would of took it and not said a word , I don’t agree with taking a man lively hood because of someone’s wife’s indiscretions , I would be looking at the wife after I put my foot up someone’s rear. Sorry off track, maybe you get the point ..back to fighting my case..

  • David Moff

    You should ready Giving Voice to Values

  • mamun

    This is really difficult to maintain unethical boss , when my job is very emergency for me and my family for survive .

  • robert rodemich

    what if H.R is involved or is just to blind to see the truth of the actions of the boss committing these offenses, and will not listen to anything and a mans life now has been ruined , and this man has hard proof of the action? H.R has disappointed me on such a level that you realize the they are not there to keep a balance between employee and company but there to protect the company even if it means turning a blind eye or being part of it ..all i know is when im done everyone will be expossed im not the type to walk away with tale between leg..game is on

  • Labella52_110

    Human Resources are employed by the company; they’re there to protect the company’s interests – not yours!

    Anyone who has a serious issue with their employer is wise to consult an attorney who specializes in employment law.

    • robert rodemich

      I tried at this point ill let the eeoc run its coarse , and then ill figure it out on my own , what I do know is ME! and me isn’t letting it go, , its a shame that in this day and age bosses can get away with this in the eyes of the law. but the law isn’t always right or even there , im just going to get the truth out one way or another ..because even though I can prove what im saying it just isn’t enough and they think they got away with it ..

      • Labella52_110

        It depends what the laws are in your area. Were your legal rights violated? If yes, it’s likely you can sue your employer. What does “At Will” state mean?

  • mrcanada976

    If you are reading this because you are being asked to do something unethical read this and perhaps it will make you consider your options more clearly.

    I work in banking, and my boss (who was a pretty cool guy) started asking me to key in data that was obviously obtained from another bank illicitly. Week after week I’d get plain manilla envelopes containing clients of another bank that contained information an identity thief would salivate over. I left out the sensitive information that could be used for applying for credit or something, we were only using it for prospecting data to try to find wealthy clients.

    I wasnt supposed to bring the paper back to the office, because it was obviously wrong. I had no shredder equipment at home where I was doing the keying in remotely. So this stack of illicit documents grew to the size of a three foot pile, because I couldn’t recycle it or put it in the garbage in the normal way.

    There was a colleague on my team who obtained this information for my boss, eventually he just handed it to me directly.

    Turns out this “colleague” was trying to get my boss to fire me for a few years because he loathed how I got better paid than him and worked less hours. Whenever his protests came up, I plied to my boss that I was a sales guy he was administration, that I was off the charts in production and that the guy had seen his income increase by over $15,000 per year in under two years (nearly 30%) and that this guy was doing just fine.

    The “colleague” continued to press and eventually another colleague who’s job it was to prepare proposals wouldnt even prepare proposals for my prospects anymore and would botch sales meetings so bad he would allow the client to talk to their other broker first which is about the stupidest sales cycle I’ve ever seen. Never in this business have I seen anyone literally refuse to compete over a million dollar plus account.

    Then, I got a pay cut out of nowhere of 100%. That’s possible because I went from $40k plus bonus to $24k draw against commission. It amounted to a constructive dismissal it was so steep. Plus, I had been assigned a sales assistant who I was training who was doing OK and now I was getting paid less than her (she was $24k salary plus bonus). Topping it all off this happened in the beginning of summer when your lucky to get anyone to even talk to you let alone close business and deals – and remember the closing team “colleague” was refusing to even do proposals for my prospects.

    Then I came in in September, wanting a marketing meeting. I needed some new leads and wanted to start some projects. We had a meeting allright, except I got fired. Given that my unemployment would pay me more than I was making in draw, I offered to work for free while on unemployment so I could at least close the deals I’d been working on and make my lost income back.

    The offer was declined. I needed to be fired.

    So this weasel administrative guy who was feeding me these illicit documents and this complicit portfolio manager who now had equity in the business successfully got me pushed out, and the boss listened to them. All while I had been keying in this illicit data for four years at home.

    I got a job at the same company with a different group. Nothing illicit there but I said nothing. The old boss owed me birthday drinks because he fired me for my birthday, never came through except for a drink at Christmas (my bday is October).

    Eventually I got a better offer from a different bank. Before I started I promptly wandered over to the bank where the illicit documents came from and dropped them off, told them to find the employee who was leaking this data over five years.

    I felt a lot better. The CEO of the bank that I worked for knows what went down but my anonymity was respected, he said “who knows maybe our paths will cross again we will always need good talent”.

    The moral of my story here is if they are getting you to do illegitimate or unethical things if something heats up they will have no problem firing you and putting the blame on you, even preventatively. Dont think that you are scoring points or that they owe you. Unethical people are unethical. Why would they treat you any different.

  • Dizzy

    What do I say to a potential employer if asked why I left my job if I was a server and my employer was taking my tips?

    • Dizzy

      It’s my only legitimate job experience and I only worked there for 2 weeks before calling her out on taking half my tips and she fired me. Now I’m in a really shitty situation

  • rideronthistrain

    What if there is no HR? Just 2 unethical managers who do everything in a small non profit? I was fired in retaliation from a post retirement job because I called them out on involving me in a lie that was sent to 200 volunteers. I was given a story. I questioned that story. I was assured it was true. I then sent out the email believing it was true. Later I discovered the deception and confronted the managers. Got fired the next day via a phone call. There is fraud and retaliation going on in that small non profit for many years. The BOD tend to be insiders and there is no oversight for the 2 managers. I was used and then discarded because my ethics could no longer allow me to be silent. I’d love to bring those managers down. There’s just no one to go to.