When you are asked to do something immoral, illegal or just plain icky at work, it’s often presented as “no big deal,” “this is how we stay in business” or “everybody does it.”
One of my first jobs was busing tables in a small neighborhood spaghetti joint. It was one of those places where customers are given a complimentary basket of bread rolls. The owner told me that if one table of customers didn’t eat all the rolls, I should just pass those same rolls on to the next table.
“Really?” I said.
“Hey,” the owner said, “I gotta make a living here.”
This is the way it often looks when you are asked to do something unethical, immoral, illegal or just plain icky at work. It’s presented as “no big deal,” “this is how we stay in business” or “everybody does it.”
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Since you are in charge of your own actions and their morality, you need to ask: “If someone did this to me, how would I feel?” Sometimes, you have only your gut feeling to go on.
How do you deal with a boss who asks you to do questionable things? No one likes to be told they’re doing wrong — especially when they’re doing wrong. Here are four strategies to try:
Rephrase the request. “You actually want me to re-serve bread rolls that people may have handled?” Sometimes hearing how bad a thing sounds can cause the boss to reconsider.
Suggest an alternative. “Why don’t we just give each person one bread roll to start with, and then offer more if they want?” It’s often the results your boss cares about (in this case, saving money), not how you get those results.
Deflect with humor. “You want me to do what? Whoa!” Try this only if you are on very good terms with your boss and you are a natural-born comedian.
Just say no. Smile, look your boss in the eye, let a few seconds pass and then calmly say, “You know, I’m just not comfortable doing that.” This works more often than you might think.
It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it to maintain high standards — not only at work, but everywhere. If you refuse to tell little lies, no one will ask you to tell a big one.
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real-Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.