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Push Back When Asked to Do Wrong Mark Swartz, M.B.A. M.Ed.

About the Author

Mark Swartz, MBA, M.Ed., is Canada's Career Activist. His insights reach millions yearly as the Career Advisor, as author of the best seller "Get Wired, You're Hired," also as a professional speaker and coach on career/work issues. A former Toronto Star careers columnist, Mark's advice is forthright and practical. For Canada's biggest directory of free career articles, and for personalized coaching, please visit

'A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.' Albert Camus.

Your colleague gets kudos for a report she was asked to plagiarize. Now your boss suggests you alter this month's sales figures -- just a wee bit. With review time soon and staff reductions looming, what are you going to do?

Welcome to the world of workplace morality; a quagmire of ethical quandaries. Where 'everyone is in competition, and generations are vying for scarce resources,' according to Aileen Crowne, a Toronto-based corporate coach.

'People are scared that if they slow down for a minute, or don't do whatever is expected, they'll get fired,' Crowne says. She attributes this rivalry to the human survival instinct, compounded by slash and burn tactics employers have adopted since the '90's.

John Dalla Costa, author of The Ethical Imperative (HarperCollins), adds that pressure to produce immediate results may also be fostering dishonesty. Companies are operating like the short term is the only term. And since we tend to be measured against others, 'People feel that if they're being ethical, they may be missing opportunities.'

'Grub first, then ethics.' Bertolt Brecht Does this mean we're condemned to fudge research results, like those managers are accused of at PepsiCo, to win million dollar soda fountain contracts? Or inflate revenue figures to boost our own commissions, as a few sales staff at Bell's Nexxia division purportedly did?

Not if you know how to push back, says Crowne. A thorny process, but one that can begin with small steps. 'Start by assessing your principles and knowing what your own limits are.' Online you can try out a free Values Profile at

Beyond that, you can leverage the tools your employer has on hand. Many companies have a published code of conduct you can refer to. Some offer training courses on dealing with moral ambiguity. If there's an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) hotline, you can vent or discuss your situation anonymously.

Whether or not your employer has these resources, it comes down to hard choices. Andrea Plotnick is the National Expertise Director, Organizational Effectiveness, at The Hay Group (a leading HR consulting firm). She suggests you ask yourself the following questions: Is what you're being asked to do illegal, or immoral? Would it reflect poorly on the company? And would doing it put you in jeopardy personally?

'The important thing is to protect yourself,' says Plotnick, who holds a Ph.D. in Organizational Behaviour. Document your situation and record critical details. Make sure you understand what's really going on before taking action.

Remember that--at a minimum--your reputation is at stake. Says Dalla Costa, 'Personal integrity is possible in spite of systemic corruption, though it may well come at a price.' He adds that while you don't always have control over the 'what', you're unshakably in charge of the 'how.'

'One of the most difficult tasks an office professional has is making the boss realize that 'no' is a complete sentence.' Nan DeMars (author of You Want Me To Do What?)

In this case, the how ranges from capitulating fully to outright mutiny. In between lies a vast zone of gray. You could, for example, report the situation to Human Resources or a sympathetic senior manager. If you do, 'make sure that you are objective and factual,' says Plotnick. Maybe even present your case hypothetically, so as not to name names initially. The goal, first and foremost, is to gain their support in solving the problem together.

If that should fail, it could mean escalation city. None of the alternatives is particularly pretty. Like consulting an employment lawyer, at your expense, to explore remedies. Or confronting the perpetrator head on. Plotnick calls this latter approach the 'difficult discussion' and advises you to do it delicately. 'It means taking a mature tack, using phrases such as 'this is how it makes me feel,' rather than being accusatory.' You might very well solve things on the spot. But as Crowne advises, you'd better be sure your job performance is sound before booking the meeting. And keep an updated resume at home -- just in case. (More tips at the Confrontation Clinic,

Then there's whistleblowing. A drastic measure but one that might be necessary if what you're being asked to do is flagrantly illegal, or presents a danger to yourself or others. See for additional info.

Ultimately, says Dalla Costa, you must come to terms with what your own moral code will tolerate. 'At some point you have to ask yourself if this is the kind of place you want to be.' If it isn't, you may have no other choice but to seek employment elsewhere. Better that than succumbing to what he terms 'despair from pragmatism'; that is, forever doing what's expedient and dying the death of a thousand compromises, instead of at least trying to stand up for your ideals.

Without a doubt the ethical stance demands courage. Possibly considerable sacrifice on occasion. But in the final analysis, 'someone has to start asking the honorable questions at the point where decisions are made,' says Dalla Costa, founder of the Centre for Ethical Orientation. Unfortunately, while we know how to talk about costs and benefits, the language of morality at work is only now evolving. He suggests using strategic phrases, such as: 'Based on these actions, what are the full implications in terms of people, legalities, the company's reputation, our community, and the environment?' Doing so invites others to share in the conversation and express their concerns and solutions.

Will this guarantee perfect outcomes? Of course not. Office ethics are as much a fuzzy art as they are an emerging discipline. But as G. K. Chesterton so wryly observed, 'Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere.'

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