Sooner or later, it happens to nearly everyone — the boss wants you to do something that just isn’t right.

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One of the most challenging and painful career dilemmas is being asked to break rules, policy, standards of good human conduct, or even the law. You naturally don’t want to do something you know you shouldn’t. But you don’t want to get fired, either.

While this may feel like a lose-lose situation, please know you do not need to allow yourself to be bullied into acting in ways you know in your heart of hearts are wrong. You have smart, diplomatic alternatives when faced with shady requests like these.

Before doing anything, make sure you correctly understood the request/order. Who knows, your bosses may just be really poor communicators. Try clearly rephrasing the request back to them and see what they say. They may realize how bad it sounds and back down.

If not, you still have options. First, consider that maybe your boss doesn’t fully realize the impropriety of what he or she is telling you to do. So ask for specifics. Do so in as nonjudgmental and unsanctimonious a fashion as possible, assuming goodwill on the part of all parties.

In this conversation, explore just what it is your bosses want to accomplish. Ask how exactly they envision that you carry out their directive. Gather all pertinent facts and data. Think through the potential downsides, and the specific forms they would take, and write them down.

At least at first, don’t discuss the situation with too many people. Give your boss the chance to decide to do the right thing, all the while making sure your own conduct is above reproach. Most of all, look for legal/ethical ways to achieve the outcome your bosses seek.

This is important: You will absolutely want to keep a paper trail. Put everything in writing and store copies in a safe place.

Finally, keep in mind that in the final analysis, your only option may be to look your boss in the eye and say, “You know, I’m just not comfortable doing that.” Be ready to immediately start looking for a new job. Indeed, you may want to do this anyway.

It is not always easy, but it is always worth it to maintain high ethical standards, at work and in all facets of your life.

Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real-Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use and of the novel “The Paris Effect.” Email her at wg@karenburnsworkinggirl.com.