shell game

Trust Breaker #1: My boss is unethical

Is your boss a liar, a cheat, a swindler or just plain sneaky in how he or she operates?  This is the most common and clear way a boss can break our trust.  But beyond the secret conversations, hidden bank accounts, broken promises and back-office deals, what are some of the more subtle things a boss can do that would prove to be unethical?  And how can we tell?  Here are a few good warning signs:

  • How does your boss treat your co-workers?  If your boss is playing nice with you, but back-stabbing your co-workers, be warned.  While we might like to think we are special, the reality is that we are likely no different than our co-workers.  Your boss just simply hasn’t gotten to you yet.
  •  How does your boss choose vendors and / or make deals with outsiders?  Does your boss have a “fair” process for deciding who is going to win his / her business or is the decision based on who has the best box seats, similar collegiate affiliations, and mutual back-scratching?  If those are the rules they are playing by with outsiders, what happens if they apply those same rules internally?  Can you play… or more importantly, do you want to?
  • Does your boss keep the BIG promises?  I’m not talking about little promises that bosses make that get broken (Ex: he or she can’t meet with you for lunch due to a last minute conflict, he/she couldn’t make the conference call or meeting because of an emergency, etc…).  I’m talking about the BIG promises.  Did your boss promise you a promotion, raise or significant opportunity and now pretends as if that conversation never happened?  If that is the case, watch out.  This may be the beginning of a pattern in which they make you false promises in order to string you along, ultimately keeping you at your current position for as long as they possibly can.
  • Does your boss cut your salary in order to increases his / her own?   If you are being asked to forgo your bonus or take a pay cut, watch carefully and listen closely to see if you boss is doing likewise.  My favorite story related to this behavior involves a seasoned attorney at a law firm who was told that she needed to take a pay cut despite her performance and years of service to the firm.  It was explained to her that the economy had taken a significant toll on the firm’s overall book of business.  Reasonable enough, right?  A few days later she noticed that the firm’s admin inadvertently left copies of the partners’ bonus checks next to the copier.  She quickly found out where her pay cut went.  Don’t just assume the boss is reciprocating your sacrifice.  Ask. 

So what can you do?  This is a potentially sticky situation that we need to address carefully and discretely.  I never recommend getting into a bar fight with an unethical boss.  They play dirty.  However, there are two good steps you can take:

Step 1: Document everything.  If you notice your boss has the propensity to slip on promises or make sneaky dealings, make sure you are documenting EVERYTHING.  How you might ask?  Put everything in e-mail and save it all.  Confirm promotion schedules in e-mail.  Confirm salary cuts / increases in e-mail.  Even include your recommendations on vendor choices in e-mail.  This serves two purposes.  First, it helps to keep your boss in line and second, it protects you in the event your boss gets caught and an internal investigation ensues.  You don’t want to be mistaken for crew on his or her sinking ship.

Step 2: Develop an exit strategy.  As my friends in the entrepreneurial world say, “you should always have an exit strategy.”  Do you have one?  Get one.  The odds of making an unethical person change their stripes are virtually non-existent.  You may be wonderful in your own right, but if you think you can help your boss “see the light,” you may be just as delusional as they are.  More importantly, depending on the degree of unethical behavior, you may be putting yourself and your career at serious risk by sticking around.  Not simply because your boss could continue to hurt you by limiting your opportunities and/or stealing from you, but more importantly because you are under their reputational umbrella.  If they go down, your reputation could be stained… permanently.  You could be one of those unfortunate individuals who have Arthur Andersen or Enron on their resumes and forever are defending their reputation and arguing their innocence.

Dealing with an unethical boss is no laughing matter.  It won’t go away easily and likely won’t get better.  Just be sure to take the necessary steps to ensure that you have some distance and adequate cover from their eventual implosion.  Trust me, it won’t be pretty.

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16 replies
  1. Giancarlos says:

    I work in retail and the manager is very crass and mean. I know that bosses have to be demanding. But the problem is, he’s very crass, and treats me like crap. I do the job I’m assigned to do, everyone makes mistakes at times. And guess what? He is very vulgar, very mean, and the way he talked to me today almost made me want to punch him in the face.

  2. Brandon Smith says:

    Hands down, there is nothing worse than a bad boss. They can make our lives absolutely miserable. At the same time, we can’t let them get the best of us. So, in your case I would recommend a couple of important steps:
    1. Try your best to document his bad behavior (witnesses, e-mails, etc…). It might come in handy later
    2. Start your exit plan. Get your resume ready and start looking for something better, but most importantly, be sure you look for a great boss – most people overlook that component and only look for the right job. Both are important
    3. Keep your cool. The last thing you want to do is physically respond to your boss. It will not only get you fired but it could hurt your ability to get another job. Not to mention, no one will listen to you after that if you try to bring up your boss’ bad behavior.

    Good luck!

  3. Wes says:

    My boss covers mistakes for other employees and I’m talking about when we close at night the night director would be off on the safe by 200 dollars some times and I documented it and gave it to my area director it’s been a week and still no one has been suspended or in trouble I’m worried now about my job

  4. Brandon Smith says:

    Wes,
    That sounds not only unethical but likely illegal. I think your best bet is to hope for the best (that your area director would do the right thing) but plan for the worst. Get your resume together and start looking for a healthier environment. If you do leave or if you think your area director isn’t going to do anything, I would send documentation to HR and any other “compliance-related” departments your company might have. Maybe even your area director’s boss if you are really bold. Good luck and let me know if I can help in any way!

  5. Joy says:

    I work part-time for a non-profit organization, on a contractual basis. Over the course of this last year, I have had multiple conversations with the Executive Director regarding turning my part-time position into a full-time one. I was told that if I could find funding, perhaps they would get it in the works. I found funding that would allow them to do this, and was then told that they thought I was paid too highly, so they would advertise my position at a much lower rate and if I wanted to apply I could. It was made clear that there would no longer be a position for me unless I wanted to take a significant pay cut. I have declined applying for the position and am now being told that no one has been hired and I need to come back in my part-time capacity. I find it unbelievable that anyone thinks they can treat a dedicated, long time employee this way. Needless to say, I have seen the true colors and will not be returning in any capacity to work for them!

  6. Brandon Smith says:

    I’m proud of you for your courage. You are right – no one deserves to be treated the way you described and by staying you would be essentially condoning that behavior. Way to go!

  7. Trod on says:

    My boss lies and makes offers and promises she doesn’t keep. I don’t trust her or believe anything that comes out of her mouth anymore. I work in an all female environment and have been trying to conceive for a while now and I have been open with my boss because I am undergoing IVF. The new year has begun and I have had my position taken off me, demoted but on same pay. The job I was doing still exists but was given to the girl who worked under me and my responsibilities have been take away. When I confronted my boss she said she doesn’t know what to with me because I want to have a baby. I feel like I am being discriminated against. I never said I don’t want to be a working mother

  8. Brandon Smith says:

    Yikes. This has “legal consult” written all over it. I suggest you first contact an employment attorney and then contact company HR. HR will not want a lawsuit and should step in if particularly if you use the same language with them: “I feel like I am being discriminated against.” Most importantly, lobby for a transfer. You need a better boss.

  9. A. says:

    My boss is a crook. I work for a fortune 500 company that manufactures aircraft parts. I witnessed him ask a subcontractor for money in exchange for more work. Completely unethical. I went to my ethics dept and explained the situation. They have done nothing!!!! I’ve been interviewing for a few weeks now trying to find a new job. Shame really, I really love the type of work I do. It’s been very upsetting to my entire family but I cannot let a man like that dictate my career advancement.

  10. Brandon Smith says:

    Hang in there. And don’t be afraid to also submit a complaint to Human Resources. But, overall, I think your strategy of leaving is the right one. Hit glassdoor.com and let others know how you feel.

    If I can help in anyway, don’t hesitate to ask. That’s what I’m here for.

  11. Pam says:

    I have a problem with my boss. She is the boss that is nice to you to your face, while she backstabbs other employees, then it’s your turn. As if that weren’t bad enough, she has started going into the time keeping system and removing hours from employees payroll. I told her she changed my payroll and I won’t get paid for 4 hours, but she hasn’t changed it back. She deducted 12 hours from another employees pay because the employee is skating on thin ice, and my boss knows she won’t complain, in order to keep her job. I know my boss is over budget at work, but she can’t have free help. These are hours we have already worked. She can’t just change history. I like my job and would rather stick around for a while, but ethically, I know I need to leave. If she’s doing this now, she’ll do it forever. I need my paycheck. I’m also afraid to give notice, because, what if she doesn’t pay me at all? Apparently she can go into the payroll system and remove any hours she wants, as that is what she is doing. Help!!

  12. Cathy says:

    Ironically, I work for a DOD lawyer/ethics counselor, who is the most unethical person I have ever worked with. She reads romance novels at her desk for hours on end while our contracts people wait for months for her to review equitable adjustment requests. She routinely takes 1-1/2 hour lunches and also doesn’t record all the leave she takes. A few years ago, she gave me a folder of stuff to destroy, and she accidentally included her college transcripts. Guess what–all D’s and F’s. Now I know why she got into federal service. No private firm would have her. Her major attraction to the job is the amount of time she can spend not doing it. I’m retiring three years early because I can’t deal with it anymore.

  13. Chad says:

    After two decades of engineering work, our whole project was terminated and 50 of us were laid-off. When my lead from that project called me several years later for a job at a doctor’s clinic that only pays 1/4, I gladly took it. The clinic is own by my lead’s cousin and she was working there for about 4 months. I was offered the job because she was much too busy taking care of her daughter (more like she didn’t want to be there). They offered me the part-time job without an interview, and I never got any offer in writing. This is nothing unusual because the only job that I ever got offer letters from were from companies that I worked for as a professional.

    We were behind two weeks after I started working because they decided to move to a new location. I was asked to work more hours to catch up but they were trying to keep my hours below full-time. Still they thought the hours that I worked was too much for them. I was told that they will put me on salary. I never heard of part-time salary (36hrs/week) before but I already made up my mind that I was going to quit as soon as I find another job. The effective month happens to be a short month (February) and also the month of Chinese new year. A week into February, she told me that she will have me back on hourly instead. Just before February end, she wanted me back on salary.

    As much as I needed the job, they were very unprofessional and unethical. I was using unprofessional and unethical to describe the treatment of patients and how the clinic operates. I quit before I was able to find another job. I lied about getting another job so I wouldn’t have to tell them that I quit because I didn’t like working there.

    I thought everything was over but I never got my last paycheck. After two months and about seven correspondence, I got a notice that they already paid me everything. She claims that it was 32hrs/week instead of 36hrs/week. Whether I was on hourly or salary, the number did not add up. I even got a sheet of paper typed out that it is 36hrs/week when I received one of my paycheck. I was paid with personal checks at times and company checks on other. She would round up the hours on some and down with some. I didn’t care too much because it was just a few hours here and there.

    I was surprise that they would do this especially since I knew their cousin. Two of my sisters warned me about working with Asians when I started working there. I didn’t think the same would happen to me because I was referred by their cousin. I guess it’s lesson learned.

  14. Brandon Smith says:

    Chad,
    I’m sorry to hear about your experience. I want to be quick to not stereotype others based on your one, very dysfunctional, encounter. However, what I do see is some of the dangers of working for family owned, privately held small businesses. I’m a HUGE fan of small businesses. They can be some of the very best company cultures around. On the other hand, they have the potential to be highly unethical, destructive and dysfunctional. You’ve found the latter. Use the experience to learn what you want to look for going forward as well as warning signs. Good luck and let me know if I can help in any way.

  15. Jane says:

    I work for an unethical boss in a small, family run restaurant. I agree with Mr. Smith; small, family run places can be great, and I have worked for a few. Yes, they can be less organized and well funded than corporate restaurants, (and usually with no benefits), but they can sometimes be more flexible for employees who need that flexibility. BUT many of them commit every unethical act in the business, including requiring overtime without pay, charging automatic gratuities to large groups and keeping a large portion for the back of the house, misreporting hourly wages to avoid payroll taxes, voiding cash checks at the end of the night to cheat his investors, and so on. My boss does all of this and more. His unethical actions extend to his dealings with local code compliance (including the Fire Marshall), and the state and federal government. He is from the middle east, and his catch phrase is “rules are meant to be broken”. He takes advantage of people he sees as weak. He treats me ok, bacause early on I drew a line in the sand. But I see what’s going on, and it’s made worse by the fact that he doesn’t even seem to know anything about the business; about how to exceed guest expectations, and about how to set up his staff for success instead of failure. I’m planning my exit strategy.

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