Welcome to True Story, our series where we hope to shine a light on all things career related — the good, the bad, the tragic and the funny. We’ll share anonymous, true stories from people who have taken risks, personally and professionally, and lived to tell the tale. This is what the workplace is really like. Have something to share? Reach out on Twitter: @bullit_me.
We’ve all had moments when we disagree with a decision made by our managers. But what happens when you don’t just disagree with a decision? What if it’s something that you believe is unethical?
That’s what happened to Maggie* just a few months ago. Maggie was working for a small, artisanal honey retailer just starting to grow their business and ship their products worldwide. As a sales representative, Maggie was in charge of processing orders and returns. When the founders of the company instructed Maggie to lie about the value of each shipment on the customs forms to get a tax break, it raised a red flag. Here’s how she handled the situation.
At first, when I was asked to lie on the shipment form, it raised a big dilemma for me. I was nervous to make the leap to believing my bosses were being unethical because it seems like a big accusation. I wanted to make sure I fully understood what was happening before I brought up my concerns, rather than risk accusing them unfairly. I’m relatively new to retail and customer service, so maybe this is a standard industry practice? I was hesitant to do anything that would make me seem unqualified or inexperienced on the job. At a start-up, I felt pressure to be a team player and help the company grow.
I finally got the confidence to bring up the value discrepancy when our unethical practice trickled down to the level of our customers. When making a return, we’d have to ask the customer to lie on their return form. We’d ask them to report a much lower value than what the shipment was worth. The rationale is that if a shipment was under a certain dollar amount, the tax rate was exponentially lower. For a startup like ours, this can make a huge difference to our overall budget.
I was mortified that we were asking our customers to lie for us, and at this point, I had gotten to know my bosses better. They trusted me more as well, so I felt confident they would hear me out if I asked them about this unethical return policy.
When I sat down to discuss things with my bosses, my strategy was to focus on our customers and me, rather than their mistakes as founders. I told them that it didn’t sit well with me that we were lying on our shipment forms. While they could make their own decision about whether or not to continue the practice, I wouldn’t be a part of it. I emphasized my personal feelings and made sure that I thought it in the best interest of our customers to change our shipment policy. I made it clear that I was in no way attacking my bosses or trying to throw the company under the bus.
I wasn’t sure how they would respond, again because I didn’t have a ton of industry experience. In the end, however, we were able to come to a compromise that worked for everyone. I am no longer privy to that particular shipment policy, and we’ve updated our shipment experience to make it easier and more ethical for our customers to make returns. As it turned out, minimizing your shipment’s value is, in fact, a standard industry practice (not sure how I feel about that one), so while it’s still unethical, it is common for brands to do the same thing.
However, if you see your boss doing something unethical, I wouldn’t just assume that it’s ok. This experience taught me to start by gathering information as soon as you suspect something is off. Learn about the situation to the best of your ability, even if it means asking for clarification from your boss or colleagues. If you do decide something unethical is going on, assess your own comfort level. This means determining your breaking point – is this job worth it? Are you willing to compromise your own morals and ethics? Or, are you willing to walk away from a team or a job that won’t change its practices?
If you do decide to confront the situation, approaching a manager or person in power takes some finesse. I’d start by scheduling a meeting in person. Make sure that you clarify your intention for the meeting so a person doesn’t get caught off guard. If you have a colleague who shares your opinion, perhaps invite that person too. The key is to not assume a boss or colleague is immediately guilty or immoral. People make mistakes. Assume their best intentions, and remember that you’re there to work as a team. Even if you think what they’re doing is wrong, it’s better to work constructively rather than to go on the attack.
Most importantly, come to the table with alternatives in hand. If you feel a practice is unethical, take the time to figure out a proposed solution. One thing I wish I had done differently? I probably should have done a little more research and learned what similar companies do to navigate the punishing tax rates in our industry. Keep in mind that each person arrives with a different moral compass and tolerance for risk. What you may think is black-and-white isn’t always so clear. Having some impartial and alternative solutions that can satisfy everyone’s viewpoint is important.
I’m still with the company and I’m satisfied with the changes we’ve made. We’re a brand that I believe in. It was unfortunate that this experience came up, but I’m proud of the way we’ve handled it and optimistic about our company’s future!
Raising ethical concerns is never easy, but it is a chance to show true leadership. No matter how you choose to handle an internal affair, whether it’s customer or HR-related, BULLIT has your back. Sign up for our community to start showing what makes you a stand-out professional today!
*Name has been changed to protect the innocent.
Also published on Medium.