When You Feel Pressured to Do the Wrong Thing at Work

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By now you’ve probably heard the story of the fraudulent business practices at Wells Fargo – the bank that pressured employees to create false credit card and deposit accounts. Have you asked yourself what you would do if you were an employee facing that kind of pressure? In other words, how do you handle a situation in which the incentives seem to be telling you to do something you believe is bad for your customers and clients, or maybe even illegal? And what if it’s clear your boss wants you to get with the program – and your bonus, a promotion, or even your job are on the line?

It’s easy to think that these situations are black and white. Either you go along or suffer the consequences. But sometimes these situations are gray, which I write about in Managing in the Gray. My central guidance is this: When you face a really tough problem, work through it as a manager and resolve it as a human being. This approach can help you avoid stark choices between getting ahead and doing something you believe is wrong.

Here’s how that advice applies to dealing with a situation where you think you are potentially being incentivized to do the wrong thing:

Make sure you really understand the situation. What Wells Fargo did was clearly wrong, but other situations can be subtle. So make sure you ask yourself questions like these: Are the customers really being hurt? Is this a practice that’s outside the industry standard or clearly deviates from best practice? In what specific ways does the practice that concerns you violate ethics, customers’ interests, or even the law? What is the alternative view of the situation – the one that says this practice is OK or even good for customers or others – and does it have some merit?

Asking and answering these questions will help you in two ways. First, you will get a better sense of whether your initial judgment is sound or not. And, secondly, if you decide that the practice is clearly wrong, you will have ammunition for making your case to others and persuading them to take your concerns seriously. You are also more likely to stick to your guns, if you have really thought the situation through.

If you can, check with others. In other words, don’t be a solitary genius. Try to find a knowledgeable, discreet person in your organization and run your concerns by him or her. Explain your evidence and your logic. Then ask if you might be missing something and if there might be other ways of thinking about the practice. If it continues to look as if something is seriously problematic, see what you can learn about the reasons why your boss and maybe your boss’s bosses are supporting it. You need to understand where they are coming from, if you want to be effective and persuasive. Before moving forward, you also want to know if there is a political minefield ahead of you.

Do a simple decision tree. It’s natural to be caught up in the emotions of these situations. You can feel angry, threatened, anxious, or even fearful about your predicament, but you also need an objective view. So use the proverbial back of the envelope, list your options, put down the possible consequences of each option, and ask yourself how likely these consequences are. If you blow the whistle, what may happen and how likely is it? If you do what you’re told, what risks are you running? What are the low probability, but calamitous possibilities – like your being investigated or indicted – that you really need to focus on. In short, a simple decision tree can give you a somewhat objective lay of the land and help you really think through your options – as you would for any management problem.

Think creatively and practically. When someone tells really good managers that the choice is A or B, they often reply what about C or D? Good managers are creative optimists about problems. They think there are better options out there and are willing to work at finding them. So ask yourself if there are other ways you could help your boss achieve his or her goals, without crossing whatever ethical or legal lines concern you. You may surprise yourself and find a way out of you jam that works for you and your boss.

Consider having a fairly candid conversation with your boss. This approach will appear on most decision trees, but it isn’t a comfortable option; if they go wrong, these conversations can be career-limiting moves. To raise the chances of success, you need to have a sound alternative for your boss and the right way to frame it. And you will probably have to pull your punches. Telling people that are behaving unethically usually comes across as an accusation, not argument. The better framing is usually along the lines of: I think we’ve got some serious legal risks here, we’re doing something that could backfire with our clients or regulators, or the longer-term consequences of what we are doing could really backfire and hurt our careers. In other words, try to frame your concerns as practical, maybe urgent, managerial issues.

It’s important to be realistic about these tough situations. Even if you follow the five steps above – in other words, even if you work through the situation as a manager – you may not find a way forward. Then you face a hard decision, as a human being. You need to step back and ask whether you can live with yourself, if you go ahead and do some version of whatever concerns you or whether the situation is a deal breaker and you have to update your resume and take a stand. This can mean time in the doghouse or even leaving your job, but at least values will be intact.

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