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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12 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.

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  1. [...] leaders in your organization are living beyond the means of someone in their role, that is a huge red flag. At best, it could mean they like flashy “stuff” and have an overinflated sense of their worth. [...]

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