HR Insights, HR Management

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.

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at crs036@aim.com.
  • 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.

  • David Moff

    You should ready Giving Voice to Values