What to do when your boss asks you to act unethically

My client, Jennifer, had been celebrating a successful week overseas with a karaoke outing, filled with cocktails, alongside a client and her boss. However, when the check arrived, Jennifer’s boss knew they had a problem. The evening violated numerous corporate policies, including both consuming alcohol with a client and financial limits with entertainment.

But her boss proposed a solution: If Jennifer paid the entire bill and submitted it to him, he would “make it disappear.” The statement pointed to condoning some non-professional and morally ambiguous behavior,

“What else could I do?” she told me. “I was working overseas with my boss, and it felt like I had no choice.”

Sadly, events like this happen all the time. Recent research From the Ethics and Compliance Initiative shows that employees like Jennifer, have been feeling greater pressure than ever to compromise ethical standards—in fact, the rate has doubled since 2017. And unethical leaders can be unusually commonespecially when you are not expecting to work with one.

But even under pressure, we always have choices that will allow us to stay on the right side of ethical decision-making. The next time your supervisor’s request starts to spin your ethical compass, here are five steps you can use to protect your corporate, as well as personal, values While keeping your career goals on track, one ethical decision at a time.

1. Reestablish the direction of your moral compass

When faced with an ethical challenge, especially from your boss, you might think you have to make a snap decision; but your better off to take a pause and hold off.

While quick decisions are common, they are usually based on fear, or a reflexive instinct to please others. But even a short pause can give you just enough time to think more clearly. For instance, you could politely excuse yourself, by feigning a call you forgot to make. Then you can make an actual call to a family member, friend or loved one, which can help to relieve some of the intensity of the moment and allow you to brainstorm better responses. That quick outreach to someone who cares about your success and integrity, can “buy” you a contemplative breather, which is critical when you’re trying to think through other solutions.

2. Tap into compassion

Anger and pushback are natural responses to unethical requests. But you can go beyond those emotions to something more empathic, like thinking “I wonder what he is so afraid of that he would stoop to such a choice?” By looking at the situation through your supervisor’s perspective, you might find an unexpected path forward. Your goal isn’t to excusethe behavior, but rather to better understand it.

For example, you could lean into your boss and gently, and privately ask, “You know that neither of us would feel good sharing that choice with our loved ones, right?” That just might also help give your boss a useful “ethical speed bump.”

3. Correct and reframe

We might think that once we’ve committed to a course of action, there’s no room for change. But it’s never too late to seek counsel on how to make situations right. For example, after Jennifer returned home, she might have talked with a mentor about how she acted over dinner.

She then could have formulated a plan to call her boss and say something like, “I really enjoyed our night out, and always wanted to cherish the moment of our celebrating a great success. That’s why I’m going to resubmit my half of the evening expense to you, as per company policy, while making a compliance disclosure. At least I’ll always embrace the great memories of our overseas win without looking back – and next time. I’ll go easy on the karaoke.”

By reframing the discussion around the great memory, while defusing it with some humor, Jennifer could have shifted the narrative of her response to, as author and instructor Mary Gentile calls it, keep the alignment of her”voice and values.”

4. Attempt a safe yet challenging discussion

If your efforts to do the right thing are still being blocked by your boss, it’s time to communicate with someone at your organization by formally raising the issue. Most organizations have ample support personnel available to help. Still, that’s not to say that it’s inherently comfortable to do so. Not every organization, including ones that have well-intentioned ethics and compliance teams, make it feel safe to speak up. Find a communication channel that’s right for you, exploring options such as:

  • Directly messaging your ethics and compliance leader
  • Escalating up a report within your function
  • Using anonymous ethics hot-lines and other communication methods

At the very end of a process, when you have depleted all other options, it’s time to escalate the incident, no matter the channel.

5. Move on

There might come a time where you realize that your personal and corporate values ​​are never going to align with either your supervisor or your organization. When that happens, it’s time to move to your next career chapter.

Even with the uncertainty that comes with a career move, it’s never worth compromising your integrity, career goals, and even your rights, by engaging actively or passively in unethical conduct.

As for Jennifer from my initial story—she never made it that far. When she returned home, she brainstormed what occurred with a few mentors and returned to her boss and asked “Can we just hit the pause button and think about what would happen if our conduct was discovered?” Then she went on to add: “I think we have an opportunity here to take a higher road by correcting our actions instead of burying them.” And when Jennifer set the ‘higher road’ bar for her boss, he stepped up to the occasion, and they are both still enjoying a great relationship and know better the next time they entertain clients.

It’s common that as we rise in our careers, our values ​​will be challenged, and we might get stuck with unethical requests from supervisors. But being “asked” to do something ethically wrong, questionable, or even illegal, isn’t the same as being “trapped” into doing so. By following these steps you can keep your values ​​and ethics strong, develop trusting relationships, and enjoy a career you’re proud of that is free of any ethical regrets.


Richard Bistrong is the CEO of Front-Line Anti-Bribery, a consultancy focusing on real-world anti-bribery, ethics, and compliance challenges.

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