Recession Ethics: Dealing With Morally Bankrupt Bosses

How to stick to your values when dealing with an unethical employer.

June 25, 2009 — -- 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.

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.

Looking for career advice? Click here to send Michelle your questions and they might end up as a topic for her next column.

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.

Take Diana (not her real name), a hospital executive. Although the facility she works for recently underwent a round of layoffs and promised there wouldn't be any more, the CEO is now quietly assembling a new hit list.

Among the targets is Diana's second in command (let's call her Monique), an employee with a stellar reputation who's held in high esteem by Diana and her colleagues, the hospital board and the greater medical community. Diana has been told to lay off Monique by the end of the summer with "problematic interpersonal skills" as the trumped-up excuse.

"I am sick about it," Diana said of having to sully Monique's reputation. "I have spent a few sleepless nights. I have never been in such a Machiavellian situation."

Diana's solution? To urge her higher-ups to put Monique on a several-month probationary period so Monique has more time to find other employment. And to tell Monique that she's the unfortunate casualty of a political skirmish, not the problematic employee the organization is trying to paint her as.

In addition, Diana plans to call a trusted headhunter pal to see if he can help Monique find a new job.

"After her departure, I will leave too," Diana said. "I do not believe I can remain true to my employer."

How to Say No to the Boss

Exactly what should you say if asked to compromise your ethics for the job?

Tell them you're uncomfortable with the request, said DeMars, and tell them why.

"The standard reason is 'Because I may be held accountable someday,'" she explained.

As for confronting a boss you suspect is engaged in unscrupulous activity, don't bombard him or her with accusations, advised DeMars. Instead, say, "I don't know if I have all the facts." Then ask a lot of questions, always giving your boss the benefit of the doubt.

Yes, it may sound counterintuitive to stick your neck out in this grueling economic climate. But, DeMars said, "This is the time you should ramp up your ethics a notch or two. Because how did we get into this economic mess in the first place?"

Of course, if sleeping soundly at night doesn't motivate you, perhaps preserving your good name will.

"If the word gets out that you went along with it, what will that do to your reputation?" said ethics trainer Bruce Weinstein (a.k.a., The Ethics Guy), who's based in New York. "How will others see you in the organization if they know you caved in to protect yourself?"

Equally important, Weinstein said, what will future employers think of you? Will any even hire you?

But what about those breadwinners who feel that their only choices are to turn a blind eye to their employers' wrongdoings or to embrace unemployment?

"There's always a third option," Weinstein said. "You can stand up to it within the organization, or you can leave the organization and do something else for a living. But the idea that you have to either cave in to something that's wrong or sacrifice your family's financial well-being, this is the lie that people tell themselves to rationalize this kind of behavior."

Moral of the story: The only person responsible for dragging you to hell is you.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" -- offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog,