I spoke at a conference this week for Human Resource professionals on the topic of The Hard Conversations: Initiating Discussions That Matter. Human Resource folks have a challenging and unique role: they speak for management to employees, they speak for employees to management, and they serve as the guardians and gatekeepers for policies, procedures, state and federal laws and regulations.
Someone asked about how best to conduct a conversation with a senior level executive who wanted to something that the couldn’t or shouldn’t, I understood that this isn’t something that only happens to folks inhuman Resources. It can happen to anyone. And when it’s your boss, or a senior level person with power and authority, the hard conversation seems even harder.
When the boss asks you to do something that is not ethical, it’s very hard to say ‘no,’ but it’s not impossible.
First, determine if the request is truly unethical according to your values or society’s values. It might be both! Then write down your objections and read them while you are alone. If your boss asks you to give an answer immediately, stay courteous and respectful, and tell them that you need some time to think it over and give the request careful consideration. Don’t be bullied into complying.
If you decide that your answer is ‘no,’ meet with the boss and give your reply, stating your reasons with honesty and courtesy. Be prepared for some ‘push-back,’ but repeat your reasons firmly and with a positive attitude. Don’t be insulted or accuse them of making an unethical request.
Make sure you point out all the times you have agreed to requests in the past and assure them that you will continue to comply with ethical (legal) requests in the future.
It may be that your boss is so unhappy about your refusal to do their unethical bidding that they give you a hard time or continue to push for what they want. You can contact your state labor board, corporate counsel, or THEIR boss for possible recourse. It’s possible that the person making the request is comfortable with unethical behavior as the best way to obtain their objective. But there may be other ways that are not unethical, that can still obtain the same result.
Don’t reveal to coworkers or colleagues that your boss made an unethical request of you. Wanting to act unethically is not the same as behaving unethically.