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When asked to do something illegal or unethical, hit the pause button

Columnist Kristen Asleson says when you're asked to do something you know is legally shaky, talk to those invested in the company about the consequences.

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Last week, one of the avid “Women at Work” readers reached out seeking advice. Her boss, who was also part owner of the business, requested her to complete a task that she felt was unethical. Not only did she feel this way, she knew from past work experience, it was also illegal and if caught, would be a felony.

This business is a fairly new business, and in all fairness to this business owner (who is also a woman), she may not have known the practice was illegal. So, it was in complete naivety that she requested the task be done. How does that adage go? “You do not know, what you do not know.”

As stated above, this woman knew this was not only unethical but also illegal. What she did not know and needed advice on, was how to broach the subject. Should she go to the other owners? Should she just do it and let it go? What?

Based on years of leading teams and managing employees, my first bit of advice was drawn from past experiences. My thoughts were this, “Take your boss aside, and explain you know that what she is asking is illegal and could result in a felony if caught. In addition, to share that she loves her job, and she cares deeply about the establishment and wanted her to know to avoid future problems.”

After all, it would be much better to have this conversation now than after getting caught (possibly) and then having to explain she knew but did not share. Then everyone would be in trouble, she may lose her job, and the business may be more strictly regulated or “flagged.”

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Have you ever been approached to complete a task that is blatantly inappropriate, unethical or even illegal? Sadly, these requests are made quite often. According to research by the Ethics and Compliance Initiative, employees are feeling pressured to compromise their ethical standards, and in fact, the rate of employees feeling this way has doubled since 2017.

When it boils down to it, however, you have a choice to make. Just because a manager, supervisor or business owner has asked you to do something that makes you feel all queasy inside does not mean you have to do it. The choice is yours to make, and you shouldn’t make it out of fear of retaliation or the need to please the requester. Wrong is wrong, so take a moment and think it through.

First and foremost, take a different perspective. As in, one from the person’s point of view that asked you to do this. What was their reason? What will it accomplish? It helps to understand the request just to know where they are coming from.

For most, running to another supervisor or partner in the business seems like a logical choice, but really, doing so could be the beginnings of a hostile work environment or loss of trust. It is always best to try handling things privately before “narcing” on someone, which is what it appears as and feels like when done. We have all had someone send us an email with a higher up cc’d on it. The feelings of being tattled on are hard to shake.

If, at the end of the day, you have requested a private discussion and your words were wasted, then it is time to escalate the situation. Or, if the person you spoke privately to continues to request the same task, then it is time to bring in reinforcement.

Sadly, the last option is moving on from the company altogether. Unethical managers who only think of themselves regardless of the consequences are not worth working for.

These situations are not worth compromising your ethical beliefs, values and integrity.

Kristen Asleson is owner of Midwest Virtual Assistants. Send comments and ideas to news@postbulletin.com .

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