May 7, 2010
Rocking the boat at work: When (and how) to do it
[Photo: Wikimedia Commons]
Take the president of local bank Frontier Financial who was reportedly fired last month when he refused to change his family vacation plans to meet a looming federal deadline. Or actor Neal McDonough of "Desperate Housewives" fame, who in March was rumored to lose his spot on a new TV pilot because he refused to do any sex scenes.
But what about when those of us who don't work in the C-suite or Hollywood (and can't afford to lose our livelihood) face a situation that smells funny at work? Shouldn't we also stand up for what we believe is right?
The general wisdom among career experts is that if you're asked to do or cover up something so unethical it could cost your job and your freedom, the only sound option is to refuse. Sure, falsifying expense reports or turning a blind eye to tax fraud might save your paycheck in the short term. But breaking the law to stay in your boss's good graces isn't worth risking jail time.
More often than not, the ethical dilemmas we face at work don't require us to break any laws. Instead, your philandering boss might ask you to lie to her husband about her whereabouts. Or management might insist you lay off the most talented, productive people on the team while holding onto the department's laziest, fastest-talking suck-ups.
And usually, experts say, such "Should I or shouldn't I give them a piece of my mind?" moments in the workplace have more to do with standing on principle than anything else.
Consider this example: Your employer announces in January that all workers will receive two paid days off for the July 4 holiday. You book a non-refundable mini-vacation on the coast for the long weekend. But come May, the company announces that it needs to claw back the two paid days off due to a corporate cash crunch. Understandably you're miffed, especially when your boss says you'll either need to cancel your plans or use two of the measly five vacation days you get a year for your trip. You don't want to back down, but you worry that turning the matter into Vacationgate could affect your standing at work.
"It's one of the biggest issues I have seen people struggle with -- even more so today as they worry about keeping their jobs," says author and career consultant Andrea Kay, whose latest book is "Work's a Bitch and Then You Make It Work: 6 Steps to Go from Pissed Off to Powerful."
So before you start flapping your gums and raising holy hell, consider this advice from Kay and several other career management experts:
Cool down. "Plan your words carefully and approach the conversation with the goal of getting your point across and preserving the relationship," Kay says. Storming into your boss's office and chewing him out in front of his peers will get you nowhere, she adds. Instead, speak to your boss calmly and in private. Don't embarrass or accuse. Think diplomacy.
Examine past patterns. "If your boss has a history of firing people that won't acquiesce or are oppositional in any way, be aware that behavior perceived as insubordinate is likely to be much riskier," says psychologist and management consultant Dr. Joseph Cilona. If you're not sure how your boss has treated staff who've stood their ground in the past, ask a co-worker or two you can trust for the inside scoop, he says.
Avoid answering on the spot. If you're caught off guard by a request that doesn't seem kosher (for example, hacking into a colleague's computer, or taking credit for another team's idea), Dr. Cilona suggests stalling. Then go off in your corner to review the legal, ethical, or professional ramifications; consult with trusted mentor or colleague; and strategize on how to respond.
Employ the "one year from today" rule. "People make far too many decisions based on 'the principle' of the matter," says career coach Debra Yergen, author of Creating Job Security Resource Guide. When considering whether to fight your boss on a particular issue, Yergen advises asking yourself, "Will it matter a year from now?" If the answer is no, you have your decision.
Think through a potential job loss. Don't overlook how getting the axe for rocking the boat could affect your future employability. "Losing your job means you will not have a reference from that firm," says Mario Almonte, managing partner of marketing agency Herman & Almonte PR. "In an interview, the surest way to fail it is to suggest you had any kind of confrontation with your previous management."
Of course, if your employer's definition of ethics is so sketchy they're likely to go down in history as the next Enron, that's probably a reference worth jeopardizing.
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
Paul Anderson helps professionals in transition find their desired employment.
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