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Being Pressured to do the Wrong Thing in the Workplace: Some Advice

It happens all the time, in business and in the professions. A senior member of the team instructs a junior member to do something that the junior member thinks is plainly unethical. And sometimes, maybe often, the junior person will comply. After all, being the junior person typically means being vulnerable to losing your job, and it also means being liable to question your own judgment when faced with a competing opinion from someone older & more experienced. So, the order gets obeyed.

The best explanation I know of for how wrongful obedience happens is the one given by law prof David Luban, of Georgetown University, in his paper “The Ethics of Wrongful Obedience.” Basically, Luban’s idea is that once the junior person agrees to do some very minor questionable thing, the next slightly-more-questionable thing becomes easier to do, and then the next, and the next, and so on. He calls this the “corruption of judgment” theory. But that’s an explanation of how wrongful obedience happens, not a defence of it.

So, what about the rationalization, the claim that the junior person really has to just tow the company line? The first thing to notice about the rationalization is that it is a rationalization — something to make you feel better — rather than an full-fledged justification (i.e., something that would fully justify your behaviour).

As a justification, it doesn’t really work very well. Doing the wrong thing is still wrong (and in some cases, illegal!) even when you’re pressured to do it.

That being said, junior people really can find themselves in very difficult positions. They may tend to question their own judgment when faced by odd orders from superiors. And sometimes their jobs really are at stake. So it’s very hard for me, looking in from the outside, to say “always do the right thing, regardless of the cost to yourself.”

When I talk about this problem, the advice I usually give to students, in all professions, is this:

1) Do your best. Recognize the problem and be honest with yourself about it.
2) Pick your battles. Sometimes you’ll have to give a little. Only be rigid on matters that are really worthwhile. But be careful: as Luban points out, sometimes small transgressions lead to bigger ones.
3) Ask questions. One of the benefits of being junior is that you can get away with asking “naive” questions, even ones that embarrass your superiors sometimes. For example: “I know I’m new here, but why are we doing it this way…?” If you diplomatically question what’s going on, you might embarrass someone into a change of plans.
4) You won’t be the junior person in the group forever. Start thinking now about what kind of boss you are going to be, when you finally get there, and what kind of pressure you’re going to put on the young people who you see below you on the corporate ladder.

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This entry began as an email discussion with Blake Sunshine.