Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
Dear Crucial Skills,
Recently, I have been put in a very difficult situation. My CEO wants me to do something I consider very unethical; he has also instructed me not tell anyone about it. I am very concerned. First of all, I don’t want to do it. Secondly, I don’t want to withhold things from my boss. Also, I feel like I am becoming the “fall guy.” If the CEO gets caught, I will be the one blamed and fired. How can I explain to my CEO that I don’t want to be part of this unethical thing without losing my job?
The Fall Guy
Dear Fall Guy,
There is no easy answer here. I will not mince words with you. You face risks either way. If you comply, you will compromise your morals, undermine trust with your boss, and expose yourself to sanctions. If you decline, the CEO may feel it is a risk to keep you around. Or he may externalize his guilt through aggressive action against you. If he has crossed the line of innuendo and made overtly unethical demands of you, you must accept these risks and respond accordingly. The world has changed and you must respond to the reality you’re in.
First, plan for a worst-case scenario. You feel most powerless when you are least prepared for the worst. Increase your own sense of safety and control by limiting your downside risk. Document everything to ensure you can defend your rights for wrongful termination or progressive aggression should either occur. Talk to a lawyer. Involve HR or others with fiduciary responsibility to protect your rights. You are most vulnerable when you are most alone, so get support.
Then, act to create a better scenario. Having taken appropriate steps to reduce your risk, you will feel more empowered to take some risk. If you feel that the CEO is redeemable, consider confronting the issue directly with him. The best way to help someone feel safe when asking them to acknowledge moral lapses is to genuinely appeal to their best self. If your relationship is strong enough, start the conversation by inventorying those things that you admire in the CEO. Then candidly disclose that this recent request is out of character. For example, you might say, “One of the things that has appealed to me about my job is the chance to work for a man I admire. When Anna was ill and you personally paid her out-of-pocket medical costs, I thought, ‘This is a company that cares about people more than profits.’ That is why your request that I inappropriately allocate revenues in our financials has been surprising to me. That is not how I see you.”
Finally, help him find a way back. Having confronted the issue, don’t leave him alone. Explore the motivations that drove him to act unethically. Help him find a creative and honest way to accomplish the same goals. Often our first moral lapses are bad ways of accomplishing good things. It is only when a lapse becomes a habit that corruption becomes intrinsically appealing. You might say, for example, “We can shift accounting staff to work on aggressively reducing receivables. Would extra liquidity accomplish the same thing?”
I honor you for taking a stand. Take it wisely and this agonizing circumstance may bear unanticipated fruit.