My employer requested that I take part in unethical practices—what do I do? Elaine Varelas advises

What do you do if your organization wants you to partake in unethical—or even illegal—business practices? How do you protect your job and your reputation? Elaine Varelas explores this situation.

Ask the Job Doc.
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Q: Where is the line for being truthful at work? My company is undergoing a software product audit by a third party to ensure that we are using certain data correctly. We were found to be in violation, so my boss asked us to set up a fake version of the product to show the auditors for their follow up. The team raised some concerns around the ethics of this, but management pushed back, saying that anyone who doesn’t take part in this is not a team player. What should I do?

A: There is a big bold line about being truthful at work, and it’s called “Be truthful at work.” If your company was found to be in violation of an audit, you do not want to participate in setting up anything designed to misrepresent the product or deceive the auditors. As for being accused of not being a “team player” if you don’t participate, if your organization is engaging in unethical—or even illegal—activity, you don’t want to be a team player for them anyway.

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You say that management put pressure on the team after you raised some concerns. Is it your manager pressuring you? Your manager’s manager? Or even higher up? Typically, when something unethical is going on, not all of management is in on it. It’s more likely coming from one or a few key players who people believe are powerful. And until a whistleblower, or team of whistleblowers, raises concerns in a professional, productive way, things like that will continue. If you don’t feel strong enough to really take a stand against management on this issue, go back to your team—a team of people calling out unethical behavior can be very powerful against a single individual.

Being a whistleblower is not easy. Raising ethical concerns—especially against someone more senior than you—is difficult, but if one person does it, others will soon follow. Find colleagues who support your stance or a manager who is known for high integrity. Protect yourself by putting in writing that you are uncomfortable working on this project and that you’ve communicated with your manager, who assures you that there are no unethical challenges to it. Give it to someone in Human Resources. You also mention a third-party auditor; any known violations on behalf of the organization sets up the opportunity to communicate with the auditors, should the situation come to that. Seek internal counsel first—from an ombudsman, Human Resources, or the Legal department—before escalating to an external party.

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If this ethical issue is not addressed, both reputation and profitability are at risk. On the individual level, if you stay and partake in the unethical activity, your reputation and career may be permanently damaged if news of the situation ultimately gets out. Even worse, if this becomes a legal issue, you may be part of that. Being a “team player” for a team that cheats or working for an unethical manager won’t do your own reputation any favors on the job market. Organizationally, the company could very well go under or be significantly financially damaged because their reputation has also taken a hit.

Always make sure that what you think is happening is actually happening. Is there some legitimate use for what you think is a fake version of the project? Is it actually a demo to showcase a future version of the product? It seems like it would take just as much time to fix what the auditors want to see fixed as it would to create the fake version, so ask the right questions to make sure you aren’t misunderstanding management’s request.

If there is a way not to participate in this activity while still keeping your job, try to make that happen. If the biggest damage to your reputation is not being considered a team player, that isn’t so bad—and it’s certainly better than being associated with unethical business practices. The best outcome to this situation, if it truly is an instance of unethical behavior, is for the manager or managers supporting it to be pushed out.

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