Should you lie for the boss or risk your job?

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Covering himself by asking you to lie. (Credit: Thinkstock)

Q: My manager has asked me to lie. The school where I work asked me to arrange an outdoor-education retreat for 60 students but just 16 parents decided to send their children on the trip. The principal insisted that I not tell the outdoor centre that the trip was under-enrolled so he could try to convince more parents to participate. We have been billed for all 60 students which means the cost of the trip will be much higher for the remaining kids and the centre won’t have a chance to book another trip. I feel that we are acting unethically. I've already given notice that I’m leaving this job; what can I do?

A: The ethical issue here is transparency. Your boss is asking you to hide information, yet this omission could hurt a number of other parties. This quandary certainly isn’t limited to teachers. Many of us have been asked to hide an uncomfortable truth at work. In most cases, the solutions are the same. 

“One of the cardinal rules business negotiation is that you shouldn't lie; it's almost always exposed and it ruins your reputation sometimes beyond repair,” Israela Brill-Cass, executive director at law firm Boston Law Collaborative, said in an email.

In this instance, your principal is asking you to cover up the truth: that not enough students have signed up, causing trouble for the outdoor centre and the parents. That’s an ethical violation, Brill-Cass says, and you shouldn’t stand for it. “In a situation where your job might be at risk... the answer may be less clear but inasmuch as you’ve given your notice, it’s important to do what feels right for you and at least let the parents know,” she said.

The decision to override your boss is less obvious when you are not leaving your job, Brill-Cass warned. In that case, tread carefully — but remember you still have ethical obligations. If you directly disobey orders, expect to be penalised. That’s why it’s in everyone’s best interests to bring your manager around to your way of thinking. You could exert moral pressure by reminding him that your organisation has a reputation to protect.

Multiple parties

Your biggest concern is the parents because they may be asked to pay more than they expected, Brill-Cass says. One solution: arrange for the school to pay the difference. Without an attempt to solve the problem, you are violating the trust of the families. This could backfire for the school. “Without notice and an opportunity to evaluate the new circumstances, parents would be well within their rights to refuse to send their child on the trip or to send their children and refuse to pay the increased cost,” Brill-Cass said.

Your ethical course is clear, says Brill-Cass. Dispense with the secrecy your principal wants, even if he sticks to his previous directive.

The school should allow the parents to decide if they want to pay the additional cost and send their children. Tell the outdoor centre that fewer students are coming and let them find another school to take those spots. It’s better for everyone, and especially for the school’s reputation.

“By failing to be transparent and keeping the changed circumstances a secret, the school is potentially going to damage long-term relationships with both the outdoor centre and students’ parents,” Brill-Cass said. “That’s a cost that far outweighs the risk of cancelling a school trip.”

Furthermore, lying now on your boss’ behalf could have repercussions for your career and your moral standing overall, Brill-Cass said. “If you were asked to lie once, at some point you're going to be asked to do it again and it will be that much harder to stand your moral ground and refuse to lie once you've already done it.”

Work Ethic is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the ethical and interpersonal dilemmas that workers face around the world. We welcome knotty questions from readers at workethic@bbc.com.

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