Let’s look at some ways that you can address ethical dilemmas caused by your supervisor.
Let’s say that your supervisor casually asks you to sign some documents for him. You feel that this is unethical, so you simply say, “I’m not really comfortable doing that.” Your supervisor may not have been aware that his/her request was unethical, and they may retract the request. This simple process works in many cases.
If Plan A didn’t work, or you said yes and then changed your mind, or if you asked for some more time to think about the request, then it’s time to proceed to Plan B: a sit-down meeting.
First, make sure that the discussion takes time at the appropriate time and place. If there’s a pressing decision that needs to be made that may become an ethical dilemma, take five minutes, and at least make your supervisor aware of it. Otherwise, try to have a sit-down meeting in a private area so that you have time to fully air your issues without interruption.
Then, paraphrase your supervisor’s request. Say something like, “I understand that you wanted me to supply figures for that report due this afternoon.” When your boss hears another way of phrasing it, s/he may immediately retract their request.
If the supervisor doesn’t retract his/her request, say no again. This time, you need a more complete statement with these parts:
During the discussion, make sure you:
If you’ve had a sit-down with the boss and s/he still wants you to behave unethically, it’s time for Plan C.
First, reconsider the situation. Make sure you are committed to seeing this thing through, even if it comes down to losing your job. Can you live with the situation as it is or is it worth the fight?
Once you have established your commitment to this moral dilemma, it’s time to swing into action. First, talk to another supervisor (at the same level or higher) or to your Human Resources department to get their perspective on the situation. Make sure you document the who, what, where, when, and why of each person you talk to about the situation. Above all, stick to the facts. Focus on the dilemma, its potential consequences, and your ethical concerns.
If the dilemma still is not resolved within your ethical boundaries, it’s time to get a lawyer. Your next avenues of disagreement are drastic: sue the employer, go to the media or other government agencies, or quit.
Dilemmas as a Supervisor
Unfortunately, the burden of ethics often falls most heavily on those in power. Supervisors are often placed in ethical dilemmas, caught between their supervisors and their staff, or between the needs of the client and their staff. Supervisors also have the responsibility of setting a good ethical example for their employees. And, supervisors are often less closely policed than lower-level staff. Many supervisors see their elevated position as a reason to bend the rules to their advantage.