Q: I have faced problems where my boss asked me to do something that went against my own values.
Those types of decisions pit loyalty to the boss or company against personal values of honesty and integrity.
Where is the line? When is a concern too trivial to matter?
A: First, congratulations on noticing that there’s a problem. Too often we go through our workday with ethical blinders on, focused on “doing our jobs” and “just following orders” and not thinking critically about the ethical implications of our behaviour. The fact that you’ve even noticed that there might be a problem is to your credit.
Now in some cases, the right thing to do is to realize that your own values aren’t actually the ones that matter. Your boss is duly authorized to make certain decisions, certain judgment calls, that you aren’t authorized to make. And the rules of behaviour and the relevant values are justifiably different, to a certain extent, in business than they are in private life.
For example, it’s ethically justified, and sometimes required, for a boss to fire an under-performing employee, even though in everyday life reducing someone’s ability to support his or her family like that would be an awful thing to do. Bosses have to make that kind of decision all the time — they are entitled to, and they are required to. And the fact that their decision in a particular case doesn’t happen to coincide with your values doesn’t really matter much. In fact, it wouldn’t even matter if their decision went against their own values: they’ve got a job to do, too, and if their job involves firing employees who are genuinely not getting the work done, then that’s what they must do.
In other cases, however, you may be both ethically justified and indeed required to take action.
In simple cases — where no one is at risk of serious harm, and no one’s rights are being violated — you may be able to get some mileage out of asking questions. “I’m confused. Why are we doing it this way?” or “Sorry, it’s probably just me, but how does this plan fit with the relevant policies?” Such questions may serve as a wakeup call. And that might be all that’s required. Don’t forget, sometimes your boss will have good intentions, but will simply be wearing the same ethical blinders that we all wear sometimes.
In serious cases, if gentle prodding doesn’t work, you may need to take more dramatic action, going over your boss’s head. Many companies these days have hotlines you can call, usually anonymously, to report a serious concern. If the risk to the public, or to fellow employees, is serious, and if no one inside your company is going to take action, then there’s good reason to say you’re ethically obligated to call the newspaper, the relevant regulatory agency, or even, depending on the situation, the police.
The final point to make about such situations is to point out that there isn’t always a way out of such situations. Sometimes you’ll have to hold your tongue and go with the flow. In some cases, the alternative is to lose your job. And for most people, in today’s economy, losing your job is no small matter. Losing your job can mean failing to provide for your family. It would be reckless of me to proclaim, as if from on high, that you’ve always got to take the moral high road. Sometimes that’s just not practical. So here I have to be honest and practical: sometimes the best, smartest thing to do is to do the unethical thing your boss wants you to do.
The key in such cases — the way to redeem yourself, ethically, when participating in unethical activity — is to follow the following two rules.
The first is to make very sure that you’re not letting yourself off too easily. Don’t allow yourself any rationalizations. Admit that what you’re doing isn’t ideal, and get on with it.
The second is to learn something from the experience. Use it as an opportunity for growth. Maybe some day you’re going to be the boss. So start thinking now about what you’re going to do differently. Start thinking now about how you’re going to avoid putting employees in impossible situations.