What to Do When You Consider a Work Task Unethical

Career DevelopmentPersonal Branding
Unethical task

Would you do something you thought was an unethical task?

What about if your job was on the line?

The Milgram Experiment became famous for indicating that people obey authority figures regardless of the awfulness of their instructions, but amongst younger worker, at least, this no longer seems to be the case. A recent Deloitte study revealed that 49% of junior-role Millennials, and 61% of senior-role Millennials have refused to undertake a work task “because it went against their personal values or ethics”.

Saying “no” to your boss is hard, and saying “no” in a productive, positive way is harder still. If you’re considering declining an assignment on ethical grounds, follow these steps first:

1) Leave the Room

If possible, leave before responding to the request at all. If you must answer, say something non-committal, then leave.

Our moral compass is a highly emotive aspect of our personalities. When you hear something that offends your ethics, you’re highly likely to lose your temper and say something you may later regret.

Immediately taking yourself into a neutral space gives you a chance to calm down and assess the situation properly.

2) Assess Severity

The very first question you need to ask yourself is this: “is this request illegal?” (If you don’t know, Google it.) If the answer is yes, then refuse to do it. Being complicit in an illegal activity can bring much more severe repercussions down on you than losing this job.

The same is true if the task is not technically illegal but is so morally reprehensible that knowledge of it would cause excessive brand damage to the company and individuals involved in it. In both these instances, skip straight to Step #6.

3) Assess Personal Importance

Often a request is neither illegal nor widely condemned, but problematic to you personally. Perhaps you’re a vegan being asked to promote an abattoir, or an environmental fanatic being asked to throw the recycling bin in a regular dumpster.

Just because it’s a personal problem does not mean you should do the task uncomplainingly. Instead, take some time to assess how much of an issue the task is to you. Refusing to comply with orders always carries a risk of repercussions, so is pushing back on this subject worth it to you?

 4) Assess Reasonableness

Ask yourself both what your colleagues and the average person on the street is likely to think of your refusal to complete the task. Are they likely to be sympathetic, or think that you’re being ridiculous?

This ‘reasonableness’ of a request is irrelevant as to whether you should do it or not (see #3). But it will give you an inkling of how best to tackle the issue with your boss.

The more that people agree with your stance, the more likely it is that your boss will accept your refusal graciously, or that your company or HR department will back you up. Without this implicit support, you will likely be reliant on the goodwill of your boss, and have to work harder to make them see the situation from your point of view.

 5) See the Bigger Picture

Remember that nothing exists in a vacuum. Whether you decide to do the unethical task or refuse, there will be some sort of consequences down the line. Working out the most likely possibilities now will help put your decision into perspective.

If you’re considering doing the job, ask yourself if it’s likely that your boss will continue to ask you to perform similar tasks, and whether that would exacerbate your uncomfortableness. Consider also the effect on your morale and productivity if you believe aspects of your work to be immoral.

Then think about the likeliness that refusing to do this task will get you disliked, disciplined, or fired. Would that be a complete disaster or simply an unpleasant situation on route to better things?

6) Gain Clarity

Whichever side you fall down on – accepting or refusing – first approach your boss and ask for greater clarity on the subject. Keep your tone neutral, but ask enough questions that you have no doubt about what they want you do, and that all the implications are laid out on the table.

Sometimes, talking things through will make the boss realize that what they’re asking is wrong, and cause them to back down. It should also give you a feeling for how militant they are about you performing this task; if they are largely unbothered by it they should have little problem reassigning the assignment or dropping it entirely.

7) Protect Yourself

Get a copy of your boss’ request in writing. If the initial conversation wasn’t over email, write it down after your meeting with your boss and send it to them under the guise of confirming that you’ve understood them correctly. Keep copies of this correspondence on a private server (never on your work computer).

Keep notes on everything to do with the situation as it happens, and if you feel comfortable about it, go to HR. Don’t present it as an accusation of your boss, but as a request for information on your rights to push back over this.

 8) Push Back

Even if you’re not willing to outright refuse to complete the assignment, try to push back a little first. As long as you keep your manner friendly, you’re unlikely to create problems for yourself.

Firstly, offer an alternative solution for your boss, along with reasons that this would be a better course of action. If necessary, explain why you feel uncomfortable about performing the assignment. Stay calm. Try to frame your objection as an attempt to protect the business (and your boss) from unintended consequences.

9) Have a Plan B

Never let yourself get into a situation where you couldn’t walk out of your business if you really needed to. Life is complicated and messy, and it’s always best to be prepared for every eventuality.

Have enough savings that you could absorb the cost of sudden unemployment. Keep your CV polished and up-to-date. Build good rapport with clients and contacts and have their contact details to hand (or add them on LinkedIn). Stay abreast of opportunities and changing requirements in your field.

Ultimately, you should never be pressured into doing something that makes you feel uncomfortable. Jobs are important, but how we feel about ourselves matters more.

Beth Leslie writes graduate careers advice for Inspiring Interns, a graduate recruitment agency specialising in matching candidates to their dream internship. Check out their graduate jobs listings for roles. Or; if you’re looking to hire an intern, have a look at their innovative Video CVs.