Company or boss demands unethical behavior

What do you do if your boss or employer asks you to do something that you consider to be unethical? Is it time to confront them head on or do you just sit on the sidelines and hope that you won’t get caught up in the fall out?

First, you do not want to get caught being a part of the mess, especially if it is clear that you will be made the fall guy or girl or scapegoat.

It is important to know when someone is just cutting corners that might not follow policy explicitly but does not violate any legal, moral or ethical protocols. There are often gray areas or judgment calls on what is acceptable.

If the situation that you are being asked to do is truly unethical behavior, then you have to take some kind of action to protect yourself.

Here are some examples of unethical behavior:

  • In the financial industry, “Churning,” or continually moving a client’s investments in order to earn commissions on the same monies without regard for the client’s best interest.
  • Disclosing personal confidential employee information to unauthorized personnel.
  • Submitting inaccurate documents such as expense reports, commission reports or other financial records for personal gain.
  • Omitting, falsifying or revising internal documents to reflect the company’s financial position inaccurately.
  • Misrepresenting the time you worked for the company for financial gain.

One of the tactics I advise people who find themselves being asked to do something that is morally wrong or unethical is to ask your manager to sign on the dotted line. Prepare the document or put it in writing and ask them to sign off on it.

Ultimately, the responsibility for any decision will rise to the top person who has their signature on the document requesting the action to be taken.

If the manager knows what they are asking is illegal, then they will undoubtedly back down. If not, it is appropriate to discuss the risks of any decision or action with them and let them know you are uncomfortable with it.

If they insist on you continuing with the action, ask them to reassign the work to someone else or suggest that you and the boss discuss the situation with their manager.

There is a chance that you might not have all the details around what is being requested and what you are being asked to do is not out of the norm.

You probably should be taking note that there is a strong signal being sent to you about how the manager or company operates in sticky situations. It might be in your best interest to reflect on if this is the right place in the long term for your conscience and career.

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  3. What is unethical behavior? As Lynn said this is a very tough question, and can vary from one company to the next. When an activity is illegal, then the answer is easier to come up with. But there are many more borderline situations, and the knowing what is right and wrong can be difficult.

    The first thing that I would suggest would be to check the employee handbook, or go to HR, to see if the company has an ethics policy. If there is a policy it will often provide a set of guidelines about expected ethical behavior. In addition there is often a set of recommended actions if unethical behavior is found in the company.

    The reality is the there are too many companies that do not have an ethics policy. And if someone is having problems with the way that the company works, that are unethical but not illegal, then there is often no good recourse.

    For someone in this situation I would recommend the following:

    1) Keep a log of all requested unethical activities at an off-site location. If you have a personal attorney, send a confidential copy to the attorney on occasion. The point is to keep track of unethical activities that you are asked to do, and your responses and thoughts. The point of the log is not to track evidence for lawsuits, etc. but do have data to defend yourself if needed.
    2) Determine if you can push back and bring the behavior to a better ethical line. If the behavior is too ingrained in the culture it may be very difficult. Find a confidential person in HR that you can talk with, or find an external coach (like Lynn, her suggestions are excellent) that can help you find the best solution. Do not expect any quick fixes.
    2a) To improve the ethics of a company that you work for, and make it a better place, can be one of the most personally rewarding accomplishments possible.
    3) It can be tough to find a good job, and if you you push back too much, you could be putting your job on the line. You may have to balance staying employed with work that falls below ethical standards for a time.
    4) My personal opinion: if the company that you work for does not meet your personal ethical standards, and will not change, then it is time to look for a new job. Compromising your personal integrity on a daily basis is not worth any job or pay. Take your time and investigate future employers.

    I hope this helps!


    • Eric brings up a great point about checking to see if there is an ethics policy in place. The larger the organization, the more likely you will find one. Keeping a journal is very good idea. When you forward the information to a third party for safe keeping, you are establishing a time line and that can be an important part of defending any case. Great suggestions!

  4. In the entertainment business, ethics are pretty regularly ignored. Even HR is in on the corporate side rather than being there for the employees. Sometimes the worst thing you can do is report something to HR, especially if it has to do with a producer or supervisor. Producers have a system that enables them to let you go or not ask you back for any reason at any time. They make unrealistic schedules so that when workers are behind they can use fear tactics to force you to work overtime for free. It works. You are always walking on eggshells. If you go on a vacation, you may not have your job when you return. Everyone knows this and lives with it as if it is OK.
    Keeping track of the unethical decisions and requests can amount to a full time job. But, it does save you in the long run. Dating and noting each issue with details about what was said, is smart.
    Working for decent producers is also a must. Unfortunately, there are very few. Especially during a difficult economy when there are 10 people per position.
    Age, having children, and marriage are negatives. There is always a young, single worker ready to put in their dues and work for cheap all hours of the day and night. The producers take unfair advantage of people and ask for the impossible.
    Thank you for this blog.
    More people in entertainment need to learn how to protect themselves and require ethical producers and HR staff.

    • Carol, The entertainment industry are not above the law. The state maybe right to hire or fire states but, it doesn’t protect them from lawsuits or paying unemployment. The workforces centers are set up to be unbiased and investigate the issues, and going by the laws. HR don’t have control of the government no matter what industry they are with.

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