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Crossing The Line

By Adrian Savage
Posted Tuesday, February 22, 2005

"My boss and two of my co-workers are involved in something of a 'fiddle.' It isn't really criminal, but it seems to me to be dishonest and certainly in a gray area of ethics. They're pressuring me to join in, or at least promise to look the other way. I feel very uncomfortable about this. What can I do? I have to work with these people."

Let's get some things straight. You know what they're suggesting is wrong. If you become either a partner or an accomplice (by agreeing to turn a blind eye), you're going to feel bad about it. What's worse, agreeing once will make it really tough to say "no" anytime in the future. Integrity is something it's easy to lose and almost impossible to put back into place.

Besides, can you trust these people to protect you? If they're willing to cross the line into unethical conduct once, they'll likely do it again. Suppose what they're doing comes to the notice of the company. What's to stop them ratting on you? Maybe even trying to save themselves by pushing the blame in your direction? Don't trust your good name to people you know aren't trustworthy.

Okay, let's assume you stay strong enough to keep yourself out of their sleazy scheme. That doesn't deal with whether or not you should agree to keep your mouth shut about them. There isn't going to be a simple answer to this part, but here are some options to think about.

Whistle-blowers usually find themselves under attack. Maybe your company has a way for you to give information anonymously. That might help, but the chances are your colleagues will suspect you. They're already afraid you might blow the whistle, or why would they be trying to get you to promise to keep quiet? It may be right for you to bring what they're doing out into the open, but don't expect your action to be free of unpleasant consequences if you do. If this is what you decide, you'll need personal strength and preferably some friends around for support when things get nasty.

Even if you agree to look the other way, your boss and colleagues won't trust you in future. People usually expect others to behave as they do. Since they're dishonest, that's how they'll imagine you'll be as well. And if your boss doesn't trust you, your career is history. You might as well get out now.

It might be worth trying to stall - at least until you can get a job search going. Besides, your refusal to get involved might just cause some of those who are to think again. Maybe they'll realize the dicey situation they've put themselves in and back off. Maybe not.

Forget compromise. It won't work, since they'll never trust you for the reasons I've already given.

Don't preach. One thing most wrong-doers can't stand is someone who points out their faults. If you do this, their first priority will be to get rid of you any way they can. And since they're not ethical people, the way they choose may be very nasty.

Your obvious option is to get out, but I realize this may be far from easy. Perhaps you have a good job you don't want to lose. Maybe you think it won't be easy to get another job in your area. You probably can't just quit without risking your finances or your family's well-being. It sounds heroic to be a martyr for a just cause, but martyrs get hurt and most of us aren't heros. Perhaps you can get an internal transfer - your boss might be glad to get you out of the way, so he or she will give you a glowing recommendation - or make clear you intend to leave and hope the boss will be satisfied with that and hasten your departure by writing you a great testimonial.

There are no easy options in a case like this. Once you're faced with a boss or colleagues whose sense of ethics isn't the same as yours, there are going to be sleepless nights, bouts of anxiety and the constant fear of someone finding out and coming down hard on you for keeping quiet as long as you have. If peace of mind is something you value, start on that job search right away.

About the Author
Adrian W. Savage writes for people who want help with the daily dilemmas they face at work. He has contributed more than 25 articles to leading British and American publications and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The Chicago Tribune. Through his web site, (, Adrian publishes "E-Mentor", a monthly e-zine for people interested in making their working lives happier and more effective.


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