Some time ago, someone wrote on a blog that’s since been discontinued:
“…I can’t help but wonder if many jobs are designed to beat us all into idea submission. It just seems so much easier to show up, do what they want you to do, and go home. “
He’s got a point. Very few employers reward initiative or innovation. Schools tell us that creativity is a virtue but let’s face it: creativity is rarely rewarded in the marketplace.
It’s not that bosses are evil. It’s just that they want things their way. I have to admit I get irritated when my cleaning services gets creative and starts re-arranging my stuff. Sure I’m challenged in the decorating department, but hey…it’s my home, last time I checked.
But there’s another side to the question. Mindless activity can be hazardous to every aspect of your well-being. I’m not a lawyer. This article is based on my own non-legal expertise and experience.
When people get frustrated enough, they start to do really dumb things. They self-sabotage.
And when you get in the habit of just doing what you’re told, you’re at risk if ordered to do something dangerous or illegal. That’s what happened to some of the folks at Worldcomm, Abu-Ghraib and a host of other places.
“Doing what I was told” is not a defense. In courts of law and public opinion, you are expected to commit career suicide when faced with wrongful orders. At the very least, get those orders in writing and talk to someone who is licensed to advise you. I’m not.
Even if you’re not in legal jeopardy, you could still be embarrassed if you’re caught in a news story or have to explain to a future employer.
Fight the temptation to go on autopilot when you go to work. Imagine that Sixty Minutes showed up at your workplace and filmed what you were doing. Would you be tempted to hide?
When To Pay Attention
Generally you should see red flags when you are asked to falsify a statement or document — a receipt, an invoice, a recommendation, a note in your file, a memo, a diagnosis of a customer problem, a sales pitch … anything at all.
And you need to be careful not to falsify your own documents or statements, even if others around you are doing the same. A Colorado professor faked an offer letter from another university in order to get a salary increase. His legal fees to get out of the mess will be far larger than any increase to his compensation. You can read the story here.
The vast majority of people will never face this situation. But if you do, here are a few suggestions.
(1) Be sure you understand what you are being told to do. Begin by asking out of curiosity, in a non-judgmental style.
Simply asking for clarification may make the problem go away. You may have simply misunderstood the situation. Additionally, as your boss answers the question, she might become more aware of what she’s asking.
This article from Fast Company describes a manager who was asked to tell clients the software would be completed on time. In practice, the likelihood of meeting the deadline was very low. The manager just said to his boss, “If I gave the phone to you, could you say this in clear conscience?” The boss realized what he was asking and backed down.
Try to get everything in writing — the egregious request and your polite reply. Be aware that anything you’ve written might be used in a future legal action.
You may be able to negotiate an alternative course of action. But be aware that simply knowing about an illegal practice might create problems for you in future. I’m not a lawyer, so if you seem to be heading into muddy waters, consider getting advice from someone who is licensed to practice law — and understands employment.
And if you find yourself facing queries from a law enforcement agency, don’t try to tough it out. Get help. They rarely show up at your office to talk about the weather.
A lawyer told me, “A client who worked for a government agency received a visit from two FBI agents. He was pretty light-hearted about the whole thing. But his wife — a lawyer in a different field — insisted he call me. I specialize in white collar crime. He hadn’t done anything wrong. We were able to head off the investigation and keep him from being indicted. Once that happens, things get much more difficult and expensive.”
(2) Identify the possible outcomes of your choices. Losing a job can be truly horrific. But if you comply with an illegal request, the consequences might be considerably more serious than losing your job. If someone tries to bully or threaten you, stand firm. You’re the one who takes the consequences.
Recently I heard about a dentist who lost his license for six months. His boss had asked him to sign insurance documents. But it turns out the claims were fraudulent. Whose name was on the papers? That’s the person who paid the price. The boss got off scot free.
(3) Some experts encourage you to go to Human Resources. But I’d be careful about approaching them. Talk first to a lawyer, therapist or career consultant – and make sure they have a realistic, streetwise understanding of business and careers.
The HR person usually won’t want to hear something negative, especially if a higher-level person is involved. Their job is to protect the company. They may be following guidelines to “shoot the messenger.”
If the action is widespread, HR and may already know. They might be in the early stages of taking action or doing damage control.
But whenever you deal with HR, remember they’re trained to take care of the company — not the employees.
(4) Some experts encourage you to go to an outside agency or even the media. They’ll advise this step especially when your company is too small to have a full-fledged HR function.
If it were up to me, I’d talk to an attorney before taking these steps. I also advise my clients that I can’t comment on the legal issues. But politically, it’s almost guaranteed that you won’t be able to keep your job after you’ve done these things.
(5) While this article seems to be particularly grim, you do have some proactive steps you can take — and it’s best to start doing them as early in the process as possible.
In fact, here’s what I advise my clients. From your very first job, or your very first business, your first priority should be answering these three questions: “What will I do if this falls apart?”
“What if I can no longer earn money this way?”
“Am I free to walk away if this job or business no longer serves my interest?”
The answer is what I call “career insurance.” Career insurance has three components:
Component 1: Find a side hustle, a second job or a way to build your skills to become more marketable. If you’re so busy on the job that you can’t do anything else, you should be earning enough salary to build a strong investment portfolio.
Component 2: Every quarter — certainly every year — review your resume. Are you more marketable than the previous quarter? The previous year? If you’re not getting more marketable, you’re increasingly vulnerable. The more marketable you are, the less likely you’ll be susceptible to pressure from a boss. In fact, your body language and speech patterns will discourage someone from approaching you with unethical propositions! You don’t need to be arrogant or say directly, “Take this job and …” like the song. You’ll communicate non-verbally and professionally, and others will get the message.
Component 3: Begin working with an ethical financial advisor early in your career. Be ready to survive a financial shock — a big medical bill or job loss. And be ready to move for opportunity: buying your dream home or taking a dream vacation. It’s tough if you’re still paying student loans or raising a handful of kids, so you may need to modify your financial goals and plans accordingly.
Some elite business schools teach their students, “Avoid being dependent on one thing…a particular job, a house, or a boss. It’s not always possible, but set a goal of controlling your own destiny.”
For additional resources.
Side Hustle by Chris Guillebeau. Realistic steps to start your side hustle.
Working Identity by Herminia Ibarra. Ibarra also has a good video on career change that addresses the importance of maintaining control.
Pivot Your Career Or Business. My interviews with 12 business owners who made the leap from corporate life to self-employment…and further pivoted their businesses.
When I work with clients one-to-one, we discuss how to react to adverse circumstances on the job. I’m not a lawyer, but I can help you strategize how to deal with the political side of career decisions. We can also plan your side hustle, next career, or new business. Click here to learn more and get started.
Are you considering a career in freelance writing as a side hustle?