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What if your boss asks you to cross an ethical line?

On Behalf of | Apr 2, 2024 | Employment Law |

Your employer may ask you to perform a variety of different tasks during your workday. Unfortunately, some employers may ask you to do something that is illegal, unethical or both. When your employer asks you to do something that violates the rules and regulations that govern your industry, do you follow orders and keep your job, or do you refuse and risk your career?

The impact of illegal and unethical requests

If the request you receive violates the law, the consequences you face could be severe. Complying with an illegal workplace request can result in criminal charges and penalties like fines or incarceration. It can also put you at risk of lawsuits in the future. Some examples of illegal workplace requests include asking that an employee work overtime without pay, telling an employee to mislead customers or asking that a worker lie on reports.

Even if an action is not illegal, compliance could still have negative consequences. Complying with an unethical request could impact both your reputation and the company’s reputation. In some fields, violations of professional ethics can also impact your professional license.

What steps should you do after receiving a concerning request on the job?

If you receive an illegal or unethical request from your employer, the way that you respond can define the future of your career. Some of the steps you should take include:

  • Know the laws, regulations and rules at play – Federal and state law, the guidelines governing your industry and the rules outlined by your company can all influence whether a request is ethical and appropriate. Taking steps to understand these restrictions can give you more insight into which requests are appropriate.
  • Ask for clarification – Sometimes, miscommunication can make a routine request appear illegal or unethical. Asking questions to better understand the request can address miscommunications and give you a better understanding of the task.
  • Reach out for guidance – You do not have to address your concerns alone. For example, a trusted mentor or colleague can help you understand how to address this issue using internal reporting systems. An attorney can offer insight into the law, steps you can take to safeguard your career and your options for reporting illegal activity.
  • Document the request – If you have concerns about a request, be sure to maintain a record of the communications you send and receive about the issue. This record should include emails, meeting notes, voicemails, statements from witnesses and other communications.
  • Communicate tactfully – Refusing an illegal request may be the best way to protect yourself in a difficult situation, but you should take care to communicate this refusal respectfully. You should also carefully explain your reasoning, highlighting the company policies or legal issues involved.
  • Plan for potential consequences – Unfortunately, pushing back against illegal actions could endanger your career. Taking time to understand the risks of refusing to perform this task and the risks of complying can help you understand and prepare for the negative repercussions you might experience. Thorough documentation can also support your side of the story if your boss retaliates against you for reporting illegal activity.

If your boss asks you to do something illegal or unethical, the choice you make is not only a test of character, it can also impact your professional journey and the future of your career. Working to understand your options, making informed decisions and seeking the right guidance can help you navigate this challenge and protect your future.