What if your boss asks you to do something you feel is unethical?
June 14, 2017
Former FBI Director James Comey recently testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about his conversations with President Trump and subsequent dismissal from his position. Many topics were covered during the three-hour public testimony; but I want to focus on one specific issue, germane to all employees in all types of organizations—what should you do if your boss asks you to do something you think is ethically wrong? The rote answer, of course, is to refuse; but that ignores all context and other motivations that affect us.
A few caveats before I begin:
1) This post is not about what did or did not happen during the conversations, or what was actually said. Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Comey have their versions, and each has said the other is wrong.
2) Mr. Comey is not in a position equivalent to the average employee—he has extensive experience in his field of law enforcement, he is a well-known public figure, his prospects for future employment are most likely very good, and perhaps most important, his former position as FBI Director is supposed to be independent of political influence from the Executive Branch of the federal government.
3) Finally, because he and the President are in the public eye, his actions are sure to receive more scrutiny than the average employee’s.
What is most important to the question I raise is this—in Mr. Comey’s perception, President Trump was directing him to drop an active criminal investigation into Michael Flynn’s (former US national security advisor for Mr. Trump) alleged ties with Russian interests. As Mr. Comey quoted the President, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” Obviously, as Senator Risch (R-ID) pointed out during questioning, the words “I hope” can be interpreted in different ways. Was the President merely expressing a hope, was he asking Mr. Comey to do something, was Mr. Trump telling him to do something, or was he ordering a certain course of action? All communication is filtered through the listener’s perceptions, and Mr. Comey made it clear that he thought Mr. Trump was directing him to drop the investigation.
In her book Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right, Mary Gentile writes from the assumption that most employees have a strong sense of what is right, and generally want to do the right thing. The question for most, then, is not determining what is right; rather how to stand up for your views and advocate for doing the right thing. This is the situation in which Mr. Comey found himself.
What makes standing up for what is right in organizations is often the power differentials between boss and employee, what Mr. Comey referred to as a “patronage relationship” between himself and the President. Senator Wyden (D-OR) characterized this as “the underling [is] expected to behave in a manner consistent with the wishes of the boss,” as in virtually all hierarchical organizations. Not acting in accordance with the boss’s wishes carries many potential consequences—loss of favor, demotions, all the way up to being fired.
So what can we learn about what to do if your boss asks you to do something you consider ethically wrong? I think the first thing is the importance of being able to accurately read the true meaning of other people’s communications. Emotional intelligence, the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others, is increasingly recognized as a key element in a person’s success in organizations. Recognizing that the verbal component of communication conveys a very small portion of the true meaning, “reading between the lines,” being aware of one’s biases, and recognizing the information revealed by body language are all essential elements of more accurate perceptions of others’ messages.
The second essential lesson, I believe, is the absolute necessity of paying close attention to the potential implications of the current message. In his testimony, Mr. Comey stated several times that he was playing out scenarios in his head as he listened to President Trump, trying to envision the possible outcomes of different courses of action. He made no claims to being right, but the point is that he was always trying to think of resulting effects of current actions. No doubt, his professional training as a prosecutor and investigator helped tremendously in this process—but it is something we all should improve upon.
Finally—and this is where I think Mr. Comey fell short—we should be aware that the likelihood of our bosses asking us to do something we think is wrong is near certain. At some point in our careers, and likely more than once, we will be asked to do something we think is ethically improper. If we anticipate this occurrence and prepare for it ahead of time, we stand a better chance of responding in a way that we will later be proud of, rather than ashamed by. As the following excerpt from the transcript shows, by his own admission, Mr. Comey felt he should have done better:
SENATOR FEINSTEIN (D-CA): Now, here’s the question: You’re big. You’re strong. I know the Oval Office, and I know what happens to people when they walk in. There is a certain amount of intimidation. But why didn’t you stop and say, “Mr. President, this is wrong. I cannot discuss this with you”?
COMEY: It’s a great question. Maybe if I were stronger, I would have. I was so stunned by the conversation that I just…took it in. And the only thing I could think to say, because I was playing in my mind, because I could (ph) remember every word he said — I was playing in my mind, what should my response be? And that’s why I very carefully chose the words….
Again, maybe other people would be stronger in that circumstance but that — that was — that’s how I conducted myself. I — I hope I’ll never have another opportunity. Maybe if I did it again, I would do it better.
In answer to subsequent questioning on the same topic from Senator Rubio (R-FL), Mr. Comey said, “And I don’t know — you know, I don’t want to make you — sound like I’m Captain Courageous. I don’t know whether, even if I had the presence of mind, I would have said to the president, ‘Sir, that’s wrong.’ I don’t know whether I would have.”
Being asked to do something we consider wrong places us in a very difficult situation, especially if we have not prepared ourselves for that situation. Not only do we need to be ready to respond appropriately, as James Rest pointed out, we must have the moral motivation to do the right thing (above and beyond all of our competing motivations), and the moral courage to carry it out.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by UNIBusiness or the University of Northern Iowa.