Standing Your Ground at Work: Smart Move or Suicide Mission?

Know when to fight and when to back down.

"Cecilia" never imagined that sticking to her principles would come at such a high price.

The Atlanta professor (who didn't want her real name used) was instructed to pass a scholarship student who'd flunked his senior thesis three times so the student could graduate and the school could collect his outstanding tuition. When Cecilia and two other faculty members refused to comply, the department chairman passed the student anyway.

Then Cecilia received a failing grade of her own:

"I was fired at the end of that quarter for challenging the authority of my department chairman and have been out of work for two years," she said.

Academics aren't the only ones who can get short shrift for standing their ground.

Last month, when a Seattle-area bank president refused to cancel a pre-planned family vacation to meet a critical financing deadline imposed by the federal government, his employer reportedly sacked him, too.

Of course, digging in your heels doesn't always lead to disastrous results. The trick, say workplace experts, is to consider the ramifications before you speak up and to choose your reaction -- and your battles -- wisely.

Know When to Fight -- and When to Back Down

Let's get one thing straight: If your boss or employer asks you to commit fraud or otherwise break the law -- say by padding expense reports or turning a blind eye to falsified tax returns -- that's a battle worth waging.

You might think your job prospects are slim now, but try sending out resumes with a felony conviction on your record.

"People deceive themselves into thinking, 'It's not going to happen to me. If anything, my boss will take the blame,'" said Cheryl Palmer an executive coach based in Silver Spring, Maryland.

That may be what former WorldCom senior accounting manager Betty Vinson thought, too, before she knuckled under executive pressure to fudge the company's books, a decision that earned her a five-month prison sentence.

Yes, if you refuse to lie, cheat and steal for your boss, there's a decent chance you will be shown the door. But at least it won't be one with vertical bars.

Handling Legal, Yet Ethically Squishy Requests

Suppose you're not asked to break the law, but to break a trust, say, by pilfering a colleague's idea or lying to your boss' spouse about his or her whereabouts.

That's when it's time to consult your moral compass.

"Many people are afraid to speak up because they don't want to be the one to deliver bad news," said author and career consultant Andrea Kay, whose latest book is "Work's a Bitch and Then You Make It Work: 6 Steps to Go From Pissed Off to Powerful."

"I've seen people get promotions for standing their ground or sharing an unpopular viewpoint," Kay said.

Then again, she's also seen people "ostracized for speaking up."

But, Kay added, employees caught between a rock and a dishonorable place have to ask themselves, "How am I going to feel if I do go along with this?"

"The bottom line is you have to live with yourself," said author and career counselor Robin Ryan, whose books include the bestseller "60 Seconds & You're Hired!"

"I personally would have a very difficult time covering for a boss who was having an affair, when his or her spouse called," Ryan said.

The Hazards of Opening Your Mouth

Then there are those "speak up or shut up" moments.

If your manager doesn't take kindly to being challenged, tipping the proverbial apple cart could cost you dearly. (Think layoff, demotion or belittling you in front of your peers any chance they get.)

"Sometimes just standing up for yourself on small issues can tick someone off enough [to] make life miserable for you," said Kay.

"Most bosses do not tolerate any perceived threat to their authority," Palmer added. "So even though the issue that's on the table may not be that big, a lot of bosses are not going to back down."

For this reason, Palmer said, if the issue in question isn't an ethical or legal one, but simply a matter of principle or personal preference, often you're better off letting it slide.

Sometimes Better to Let It Slide

That's what "Danya" did when her company gave employees an extra paid holiday off this year, only to reverse their decision months later, after Danya had already purchased plane tickets for the long weekend.

"This just infuriated me," said the Scottsdale, Arizona communications professional. "How could a company take back a paid holiday that they already announced months earlier?"

Danya made her case to the higher-ups, offering to work remotely from her mini-vacation. But it was no use; her boss wouldn't allow it. Her only options were to change her travel plans or use one of her scant few paid days off for the trip.

"I was pretty burned up about it for a week or two but in the end calmed down and used one of my vacation days," Danya said. "It wasn't worth making such a huge stink over."

Gauge the Stakes Before Your Speak Up

Sucking it up may not be your strong suit. But before you give your boss a piece of your mind, it's important to consider how your feedback will be received.

"Don't react immediately to what you've discovered. Think it through," Kay said.

Likewise, she added, if you do choose to confront your boss, do it privately and diplomatically; don't go barreling into his or her office and start hurling accusations.

For a second opinion, run the issue in question by a trusted mentor outside the company, suggested Ryan.

Or, offered Palmer, ask a trusted co-worker who's familiar with your boss' or company's history how those who've stood their ground in the past have fared: Were their concerns heard, or were they promptly cut off at the knees?

Moral of the story: Before you act, consider whether flapping your gums could cost you the job -- and what your backup plan will be if you suddenly find yourself unemployed.

"People really need to know what they're getting themselves into and pick their battles wisely," Palmer said. "You could be this crusader trying to fight every battle. And worst case, you could wind up unemployed in this economic environment with no fallback."

Michelle Goodman is a freelance writer and former cubicle dweller. Her books include "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." Follow her at @anti9to5guide.