Saying “no” can be a hard thing to say, especially when you say “no” to a boss. The pressure to appease the person who signs your paycheck is often met squarely with ethical paradoxes and shifting goals and responsibilities. A simple Google search reflects that saying “no” to a boss is a recurring and troublesome theme for employees.
Vox reports that former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony last week before the Senate Intelligence Committee reflected the struggle to say “no” occurs frequently, even when your boss is the President of the United States. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) asked Comey why he did not flatly tell President Trump his request to drop the investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn could constitute illegal interference.
Senator Rubio: “At the time, did you say something to the president about, that is not an appropriate request, or did you tell the White House counsel, it's not an appropriate request? Someone needs to tell the president he can't do these things."
Director Comey: “I didn’t, no.”
Comey: “I don’t know. I think—as I said earlier, I think the circumstances were such that it was—I was a bit stunned and didn’t have the presence of mind. I don’t know. I don’t want to make you sound like I’m captain courageous. I don’t know if I would have said to the president with the presence of mind, sir, that’s wrong.”
For those pushed to perform shady acts beyond their comfort level or the law, Comey’s testimony reflected a murky middle ground. Employees are not only responsible for knowing the law so as to purport themselves ethically but also the tasked with the responsibility to uphold these values in the face of pressure from their boss. Comey’s hesitancy and lukewarm response to questionable requests reflects a jarring reality for many workers. It may take weeks for an employee to fully understand the request, process its legitimacy or legality and construct a possible response or course of action.
Donna Ballman, employment lawyer and author of “Stand Up for Yourself Without Getting Fired” explains that “with so many advantages for the bosses and so many obstacles for employees, it’s no wonder workers are afraid to speak out...There is no way to report discrimination or sexual harassment without putting yourself and your job at risk.” Even at the highest levels of power and privilege, employees like Comey are forced to confront the realities of what happens when power and ethics collide.
Are we that surprised Comey bobbled this question? The issues of morality and the pressure to appease your boss to personal detriment are rarely clear-cut. Why then do we expect employees to valiantly and passionately rebuke these requests immediately? Shifting the blame to the recipient of the request manifests itself an abdication of the role of managers and bosses to set and live by strict ethical standards. Employees are stuck in a double bind and bear the brunt of taking the ethical higher ground. Our society demands that employees fill this role rather than call on employers to take responsibility for knowing what is appropriate to expect and request from their staff. After all, bosses are the individuals asking, why should it be up to the employee to be well versed in the legal or ethical standards of a task they haven’t even initiated?
Whistle-blowing protections are a good first step but they are not nearly enough to protect employees. At-will employees have few protections and can be terminated for any number of reasons. Ballman explains, "many employees are covered by whistle-blowing protections if their employer violates the law but there is almost nothing to protect against reporting of bullying, non-discriminatory harassment or violations of company policies." If these ethical standards exist we must find ways to allow justice and morality to be realized. It cannot be a top-down or even a bottom-up method. The course of action must permeate every level of employment and we must work to create an environment where we are all equal in the eyes of the law, in its defense and in its violation.