What to do when your boss asks you to do something illegal

When your boss asks you to do something illegal or unethical, you face one of the most challenging dilemmas in your career.

“There are potential negative consequences for speaking up, as well as for complying,” says Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and the author of “Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job”.

“It can feel like a lose-lose — but you should never comply with an illegal request.”

But you should know that you’re not alone, she says. “Greater transparency through social media and financial fallouts have mitigated ethical breaches somewhat, but unfortunately, the problem is still widespread enough to affect everyone’s career because managers don’t always play by the same rules.”

If and when your boss asks you to do something you know you shouldn’t, you should first understand the facts, know your options, and consider the potential outcomes before giving your response.

“Most of all, know that your self-protection is paramount,” Taylor explains. “Misdeeds, such as destruction of certain data, illegal hiring and termination practices, over-billing clients, and unauthorised use of proprietary company information, for example, can plague you for a lifetime if you decide to engage — professionally, morally, and in extreme cases, legally.”

Here’s what to do if you find yourself in this situation:

Never be bullied.

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You may feel pressured to comply with your boss's request, but do not allow yourself to be bullied into any task with which you're uncomfortable.

'You could end up in a lawsuit or even jail, if your boss is involved with something nefarious,' she says. 'Just because you were obeying your manager's orders will not provide a defence. On the flip side, don't get aggressive in response and bully back. It won't get you the results you want by going on the offence. Stay in control.'

Be firm and consistent.

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Once you've made your decision, don't cave later. If you agree to the activity one time, it will make it more difficult to decline the second time, Taylor warns.

Start your job search.


After getting an unethical or illegal assignment or task, you may suddenly lose respect and trust for your boss and/or employer. 'Without trust, you'll perform sub-par; question your boss's motives; may be concerned about the company's long-term prospects; and invite unnecessary anxiety in your career,' Taylor warns.

Plus, your boss might start treating you differently and make your life miserable.

Think about whether you really want to work for someone who was willing to put your job or career at risk, or who treats you poorly for refusing to comply, and then begin a discreet job search while you attempt to resolve matters, Taylor says.

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