Image: Boss and employee
Stephen Welstead  /  Corbis stock
About 10 percent of employees report they feel pressured to compromise their standards in order to do their jobs, and of those 69 percent say the pressure is coming for their immediate supervisor.
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/25/2008 11:51:01 AM ET 2008-02-25T16:51:01

Recently, the manager of an Abercrombie & Fitch store in Virginia Beach decided to keep, what some deemed, risqué photos of models hung up on his store walls even though local police told him to take the pictures down.

Why didn’t he listen to the cops? Because the manager’s corporate bosses asked him to display the photos.

The manager ended up with a citation by the local authorities and faced possible jail time and a fine.

While the charges were eventually dropped, this event serves as a great lesson for all employees out there. You don’t have to do everything your boss tells you to, especially if runs afoul of the law.

Clearly, breaking the law can get you in real trouble, but blindly following orders and engaging in illegal or unethical activities on the job can wreak havoc on your career and possibly hurt other people.

Take Barbara, a Denver-based senior underwriter for a major mortgage company.

Over a two year period, she was asked by her manager to sign off on home loans for individuals that she knew were not worthy of loans because of their questionable credit and employment backgrounds.

“I determined that the information these people provided wasn’t accurate, or questionable but my manager would say, ‘let it go,’” says Barbara, who declined to use her full name.

After months of doing what she felt in her gut wasn’t right, she became depressed as she began to hear about people losing their homes because of loan defaults.

So, this past fall, she decided to take a stand and wrote a letter to the company’s human resource department even though she thought she was jeopardizing her job. "I couldn't take it anymore," she explained, still a hint of agony in her voice.

The real estate industry, says Ralph R. Roberts, author of “Protect Yourself from Real Estate and Mortgage Fraud,” is rife with these types of scenarios that began with the housing boom and have only gotten worse as management at many of these firms become desperate to get business in a housing slump.

But it’s not just real estate.

Workers in a host of sectors are feeling pressure to compromise their ethics standards, or break the law, according to Patricia Harned, president of the Ethics Resource Center, an independent research organization. Among the top industries where this is seen are entertainment, hotel and food services, transportation, retail, and healthcare, just to name a few.

“There is no question that supervisors and management have a tremendous amount of influence on employees’ decisions on how they handle tough situations,” Harned says.

Overall, about 10 percent of employees report they feel pressured to compromise their standards in order to do their jobs, and of those 69 percent say the pressure is coming for their immediate supervisor, Harned notes.

“We have certainly seen this situation getting worse as far as the number of instances where employees are seeing misconduct happening around them and feeling pressure to compromise standards themselves. It is on the rise and very worrisome,” she explains.

Difficult economic times, she adds, are contributing to the increase. “There is a lot of pressure to increase profits, keep the company going. Workers want to bring value to the company and do well in their jobs.”

Typically, in a large organization, when serious wrongdoing occurs, at least ten to 15 people are probably involved or know what’s going on, says Richard Cellini of Integrity Interactive, a company that provides businesses with ethics policy tools.

“Someone sets it in motion, usually someone with authority, but they don’t do the work themselves. They pass it on. The people who do it are usually the staff. They do what they’re told,” he explains.

In most cases, he adds, workers are doing bad things for what they deem are good reasons – to help the company, help the team, etc. “And in the overwhelming majority of cases, they are either responding directly to a request from a boss, or what they think their boss wants them to do,” he says.

But workers who engage in illegal activity are going to have a weak leg to stand on when law enforcement comes a knocking. “My boss made me do it,” is a defense that doesn’t tend to hold up in court, legal experts say.

“It’s like the Nuremberg defense,” says Nancy Cornish, an employment lawyer with Denver-based Kissinger & Fellman, referring to the “only following orders” legal defense used by some of the Nazi officers who were tried by the Allies in Nuremberg, Germany, after World War II.

The question is, she explains, if you’re acting within the scope of your job duties but you do something illegal, who is liable, you or your employer? Unfortunately, in many cases, the employee can be liable, she says.

“When a bouncer assaults a patron on instructions from the club owner the prosecutor is going to tell the bouncer, ‘I don’t care,’’ she points out. “If a pizza delivery guy goes down a residential street at 80 miles an hour should he get a ticket,” she asks, even though his boss tells him to speed in order to expedite deliveries? “Yes,” she notes.

In one case, Cornish’s client, a trucking company, sent a delivery man to a neighborhood early in the morning to make a drop off, but the community restricted morning deliveries. The truck driver ended up with a ticket.

While the trucking firm took care of the situation for its employee, she says, the driver in this case would have ended up holding the bag if his employer hadn’t stepped in.

If you refuse to do something illegal, and you’re fired or demoted because you report it to HR or law enforcement, you’ll likely be protected under whistle blower laws. But claiming after the fact, when the authorities start rounding up the parties involved, that you were told to do it but didn’t want to probably won’t hold up in court.

“An employee can’t disagree in silence with the practice,” says Jon Meer, chair of the Employment and Labor Group for DLA Piper US in Los Angeles.

Bottom line, says Barbara Repa, author of “Your Rights in the Workplace”, “no one gets to break the law, and you don’t get to hide behind the skirts of employers.”

When you’re being asked to do something that just doesn’t feel right, Repa suggests you talk to your supervisor about it. If, however, you believe your job could be at risk by talking to your boss, go above his or her head and find someone you trust who has integrity, or go to your human resources department.

You can also go to local authorities, and under whistleblower laws have your identity remain anonymous.

Depending on what the illegal activity is, there are a variety of government agencies you can go to, Repa says. If it involves a work safety issue you should contact OSHA. If it’s an issue of discrimination you can contact the EEOC. If it’s something that could put someone in harm’s way, or involves fraud, local police, or the FBI or the SEC might be the best avenue.

Barbara, the underwriter from Colorado, went to her HR department and the company launched an investigation. The manager that asked her to sign off on bad loans was subsequently fired, and new policies were implemented to prevent similar situations.

Looking back, she says, she would have reported the problem earlier.

“We are so overwhelmed trying to meet our own financial requirements for our kids our families, that we tend to go along with employers,” she says. “You have a right to say ‘no’. I should have pushed back right away.”

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