Lately, there seem to be a lot of news stories coming out that reveal people in leadership positions that have abused their influence, committed a crime, or have done things that would go against most people’s moral compasses.
I am personally stumped at how these people arrive at a conclusion that they are either above the law or the law simply doesn’t apply to them. How does one ever get to the point where bending the legal and moral principles that most people hold dear become the norm?
But this kind of dilemma can rear its head right in front of you…in the workplace. The majority of us try to walk the straight and narrow, but what happens when the boss takes a spin on the “dark side” and everyone knows it? Aside from impacting company morale, there are a lot of legal implications if (and when) they get caught…and it’s usually only a matter of time, anyway.
You need to protect yourself, and fast. Here are seven options for dealing with this kind of situation:
1. Get legal advice. Depending on your situation and the magnitude of the problem, you might need to get legal counsel to determine which action would be best for you to mitigate your own liability and accountability in the situation. Ultimately, you need to look out for yourself, and if someone else has embroiled you in something that you have been an unwilling participant in, you absolutely must take into consideration all the legal options. Consulting with an employment lawyer would be a wise investment as they can provide you specific advice on what your options and liabilities might be in a questionable situation…and can provide guidance on next steps.
2. Pull the ripcord and bail. Sometimes the breaking point is reached and, as difficult as it may be, you simply need to get the heck outta there. You really don’t have any other choices; if you stay, you risk getting further entangled in the mess that the boss has built, and it could end up costing you everything. Upon departure, you should write a letter (reviewed by your lawyer) that clearly draws the line between your job duties and the ones that the supervisor is entangled in, just as a final measure to distance yourself from their unsavory activities.
3. Blow the whistle. It takes a lot of guts to do this, and by doing so you are obviously putting all of your cards on the table…as well as your job. Doing the right thing sometimes backfires terribly and you end up paying the price instead of the bad supervisor. If the boss is truly involved in something that is detrimental to the company, perhaps there is someone else above them that you can go to. Before you take this tactic, you absolutely need to have all of the facts in place with specific examples and be prepared for a backlash by the boss, which will be directed at right at you. Most of the time, they can guess who “betrayed” them and put you in their crosshairs for retaliation, even if you requested confidentiality. However, there are companies out there who do care about their business and will react to specific proof of wrongdoing by one of their employees. Only you can make that decision as to whether this is the case at your employer.
4. Stay low and simply endure. Keep your head down and your nose clean, as the saying goes. Most of us don’t like to be the knight riding in on the horse to rescue the office and prefer to step carefully around the problem. Not rocking the boat may be a good strategy to avoid getting attention called to yourself, but you should take steps to make sure you aren’t implicitly or directly involved in the wrongdoing. Sometimes just steering clear can allow the situation to blow over, and in some cases, the boss shoots him or herself in the foot and is eventually fired.
5. Confront the problem. If you are at a moral crossroads due to the actions of your boss, sometimes going directly to them can shame them into reform. Saying something along the lines of “I can’t help but notice that X is going on, and I am sure that there is more to what I am seeing, but isn’t X causing Y?” Maybe this will make the boss change their behavior because they realize that they aren’t as sneaky as they think they are...but then a confrontation might force them underground. Either way, you will likely become a target for retaliation in a very awkward work environment. Confrontation can either work or can cause a workplace implosion, and how it will actually play out is always highly unpredictable.
6. Anonymous letter. Sometimes called the “coward’s way out,” an anonymous tip-off letter either to the boss (“I know what you are doing”) or to the boss’ supervisor (“You might want to investigate Mr./Ms. So-and-So’s behavior because of ____”) can be effective, but again, be prepared for your cover to be blown. Companies have a way of narrowing down the person that might have sent that letter. The advantage is that the light of day suddenly shines on the supervisor’s actions. It may raise more questions and an investigation, but don’t be disappointed if the leadership buries it even deeper and no action is taken.
7. Report them to the authorities. If there is a serious problem clearly in violation of established laws, and you have specific information pertaining to this, you should consider going directly to the authorities. Failure to report can come back and bite you through your inaction to safeguard others being harmed.
It is a tough row to hoe when you are grappling with fundamental right-and-wrong issues in the workplace. But again, it is imperative that you protect yourself.
The best advice you can follow is one from a lawyer who can find out what the right path is for you. Consider this an investment in your own future — both financially and career-wise.
Dawn Rasmussen, CMP, is the president of Portland, Ore.-based Pathfinder Writing and Careers, which specializes in mid- to upper-management résumés. She is an active volunteer in her community and donates her time teaching a résumé writing class at the Oregon Employment Department every week to help empower unemployed professionals and workers.
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