Recession Ethics: Dealing With Morally Bankrupt Bosses

In the horror flick "Drag Me to Hell," a promotion-hungry bank loan officer denies an elderly woman who can't make her mortgage payments the extension she so desperately needs. Though the down-on-her-luck homeowner begs and pleads, the young loan officer holds firm, hoping to show her boss that she can indeed make the proverbial tough decisions.

You can probably guess where this is going: The creepy elderly woman puts a curse on the loan officer, demons begin lurking around every corner and people who were just trying to do their jobs die.

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While the threat of eternal damnation doesn't enter into most workplace decisions, being asked to compromise one's values on the job is something many workers are more than familiar with -- especially during trying economic times.

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Some are asked to fudge facts about their departments' achievements. Others are asked to sell out top-performing team members in the name of cutting costs. Still others are told to string along vendors who inquire about late invoice payments, rather than come clean about the company having no money to pay them.

Given the horrendous job market, workers asked to make decisions and carry out tasks they find ethically squishy may feel they have to either sell their souls or show themselves the door. But are those really their only options?

Don't Ask, Don't Tell?

A research university employee I'll call Thomas thinks "don't ask, don't tell" is a good policy. His department, which regularly churns out data on the success of its research projects, is considered one of the most efficient on campus.

So what's the catch?

"It's pretty much all a lie," Thomas said. "The leader of our group pressures us to report only good news or 'spin' the data about our results so that it looks like we're effective."

"I play along to keep my job, but it's very troubling to me personally. Exposing what our unit is doing would be very embarrassing to the university. Our reports and data influence the direction of some programs and services at the university, pushing the university to pursue things that really don't work or don't have the impact we've implied it did. It's causing many thousands of dollars in waste each semester."

Rather than blow the whistle on this farce, Thomas, who would like to ride out the recession with his paycheck intact, is quietly looking for a new job outside the university system.

Why stay silent?

"Some employees have objected to the way our group is reporting data but have been bullied or isolated as a result," he said.

Not surprisingly, several colleagues who were able to line up other positions have quit the department.

Forget Blind Loyalty to Your Employer

Gone are the days of putting your company first with no questions asked, said Nan DeMars, a business ethics trainer based in Minneapolis.

"You have to protect yourself from illegal, financial and emotional harm," DeMars said. "You also have to stay true to your own morals and standards. You don't want to share a jail cell with your boss, do you?"

While prison time lies at the extreme end of the spectrum, being asked to fib for the boss is an all-too-common workplace phenomenon.

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