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Pressured to do something shady at work? How to push back

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Dear Annie: I’m hoping you or your readers can help me out of a dilemma. I’m in my first full-time job after college—I just started in July—and at first I was really excited about working here. Lately, though, it’s become a nightmare. It turns out I report to someone who has been misrepresenting certain important financial information, both to clients and to people higher up in the company, for quite some time. He expects me to fall in line and go along, signing off on reports that I know contain inflated figures. What he’s been doing is obviously unethical, and probably illegal too.

He claims that “everybody does it,” but I doubt that. Is there any way to refuse to cooperate without making him mad, or getting fired? I’m low enough on the totem pole to be totally replaceable but, apart from this one thing, I’d like to keep working here. Help! — Losing Sleep in L.A.

Dear Losing Sleep: Yikes. One thing is clear. No matter how “low on the totem pole” you are, you are going to have to speak up. Luckily, there are ways to do this and still keep your job, and we’ll get to those. But first, to illustrate why, may I tell you a short cautionary tale? It happened in 2002, when you were only about nine and probably not paying attention.

The facts are these: The telecommunications company now known as MCI used to be called WorldCom. A string of the company’s reports to the SEC and to shareholders understated costs, inflated revenues with fake accounting entries, and exaggerated WorldCom’s assets by $11 billion. Eventually, WorldCom’s own internal auditors blew the whistle. CEO Bernie Ebbers was convicted of conspiracy, filing false documents, and other charges. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Meanwhile, WorldCom went bankrupt, 30,000 people lost their jobs, investors kissed $180 billion goodbye, and Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, packed with the most sweeping new business regulations since the 1930s.

 

What does this have to do with you? Well, consider Betty Vinson. She was a midlevel employee in WorldCom’s accounting department whose boss asked her to conceal some “important financial information,” as you put it, from Wall Street analysts, by falsifying the books not just once but over and over again. Vinson told her superiors that she was uncomfortable with this. She later turned witness for federal prosecutors, but got a prison sentence anyway.

Here’s what she said at her trial: “I felt like if I didn’t make the entries, I wouldn’t be working here.” Sound familiar?

“Legally, you’re still guilty if you break the law, even if you objected at the time,” says Ira Chaleff, author of a fascinating book called Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told to Do Is Wrong. Next to prison time, having to find a different job looks like a piece of cake, Chaleff adds. “There are a lot worse things than being fired, or quitting.”

True. But since you’re hoping to stay put, he has three suggestions for you:

Ask for clarification. In any situation where you’re asked to do something that smells fishy, “always start by asking for confirmation. Say something like, ‘Did I understand you correctly? Is this what you want me to do?’” There are two reasons for this. One is the chance, however slim, that you misunderstood the request.

But the more likely, and more politic, outcome is that “you give the boss an opportunity to pause and reconsider,” Chaleff says. Intelligent Disobedience describes some real-life situations where people giving unwise orders have changed their minds when they’ve heard those instructions repeated back to them by someone else. “Your expression and your tone of voice can indicate that you find the request to be unsavory, maybe even a little shocking,” notes Chaleff. “The boss can then say, ‘No, never mind, don’t do that.’” Avoiding any outright accusations “gives him or her a chance to save face”—and gets you off the hook.

Focus the discussion on your boss’s best interests. Let’s say you give your boss a chance to back down, but he doesn’t take it. Your task is then to get him thinking about how what he’s asking for could come back to bite him. “One approach that often works is to say, ‘I don’t think you really want me to do this, because if this were to get out, it could make us’—meaning, of course ‘you’—‘look bad,’” says Chaleff. “And, in the age of social media, everything always gets out. At least, it’s safest to assume it will.”

Realistically, you probably can’t go back and correct all the inaccuracies you say he’s been putting in past reports (or asking subordinates to put there). But your main goal here is to keep your own hands clean. If you can make a strong enough case for why your boss’s career is at risk, your refusal to do what he’s asking will look like loyalty—and what manager doesn’t like that?

Suggest a better alternative. This isn’t always possible, but it’s worth a try. Think hard about what you and your boss could do that would achieve the same end—say, making your department look good to higher-ups—without violating any ethics (or laws). Maybe there’s a different (legal and generally accepted) accounting method that would show your real results in a more favorable light, or some other way to make your actual results look better on paper without misrepresenting them. If so, and if you propose it persuasively, you could end up a hero.

It may be that, if your boss keeps on making requests you can’t live with, you will have to start looking for another job. You may even have to follow the example of WorldCom’s auditors and blow the whistle on this manager.

But first, try to resolve the situation, for your company’s sake as well as your own. If nothing else, the effort could be useful later on in your career. “There are lots of ethical dilemmas in the workplace, and not all of them are big or dramatic,” Chaleff observes. “And the higher up you go, the bigger the stakes.” Good luck.

Talkback: Have you ever been asked to do something at work that you knew was unethical or illegal (or both)? How did you handle it? Leave a comment below.

Have a career question for Anne Fisher? Email askannie@fortune.com.