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June 29, 2017

Boss asking you to do something shady? Preserve your integrity, experts advise

Former FBI Director James Comey pushed back against President Trump by documenting everything

Your boss has suddenly called you to his or her office and they ask you to do something, well, … shady.

Even possibly illegal.

What would you do?

Well, if you’re former FBI Director James Comey, you document everything in a memo and end up testifying before Congress.

Comey’s recent testimony on President Trump’s "House-of-Cards"-like request to essentially give a pass to former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who is under federal investigation, made for riveting television. But it also provided a new case study for business ethicists, leadership experts and headhunting professionals who say Comey found himself in a jam that's not unheard of in the business world.

While not as dramatic as the Comey-Trump scenario, national executive leadership coach Anita Dahlstrom says she’s had clients who have been asked to “pardon the language, stick lipstick on a pig.”

So what should Comey or any executive who hopes to keep his or her job do when the boss asks for something outside the legal or ethical norm?


For Alyse Bodine, partner-in-charge for the Philadelphia office for international powerhouse executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, the answer is relatively simple.

“You as an individual have to put your head on the pillow and know you did the right thing,” she says. “I’ve seen executives who haven’t pushed back and fudged the numbers and it’s come back to bite them.”

Executives, directors and employees who are being asked to make unethical choices should “always act out of integrity, what you have is your reputation and you should always preserve that,” says Bodine, whose firm matches client companies with C-suite perspective candidates. She notes that executives caught in ethical or legal lapses would have a very tough time finding another job.

“There is a cost absolutely," she said. "It would be very difficult for our clients to consider hiring someone who was unethical in the past.”

Work for an imperial boss? You're probably in a no-win situation, and it's best to recognize that at the outset, workplace experts say. 

Dahlstrom agrees, saying that if Comey had been her client she would advise him to “stay centered to who he is,” because the emotional cost of working for institutions that don’t share the same values could be unbearably high. She is currently working with a client much like Comey, “a high achiever and strong man” who was “self-sabotaging his performance and crying in the parking lot” because of work issues.

Professor John McCall, director for the Pedro Arrupe Center for Business Ethics at Saint Joseph's University and author of a book on business and workplace ethics, says there are a number of steps and strategies Comey or other executives could have followed in similar circumstances.

First would be to ask yourself: could you live with the request, even if it means losing your sense of integrity in favor of keeping your job?

“The ethical must make some room for people to reasonably protect their own and their families' interests,” McCall says.

But he cautions that “while a job and an income are important, so too is self-respect. The loss of the latter is less quantifiable but equally damaging to a person in the long run. An employee might have to accept that the cost of self-respect and integrity sometimes is leaving a job, with the financial consequences that entails.”

Dahlstrom, Bodine, and McCall all advise having a non-confrontational conversation with the superior making the request to sound out the consequences and looking for allies within the organization for more perspectives.

But it seems clear, given Trump’s blunt leadership style, that this was a no-win situation for Comey, McCall says, and employees should recognize when they are in one with an imperial style boss.

Ultimately “document everything and be ready to get fired.”