"If you lie for an unethical boss, you lose your self respect." - CarolAnn Smallwood, executive assistant in Stratford, Connecticut.
If your boss is in trouble, you are in trouble.
At least, that's the way it used to be. Loyalty was blind and it was expected that, as a professional administrative assistant, you would take the blame, catch the darts, and otherwise fall on your sword if it was necessary to help your boss. Those expectations have gone the way of the job-for-life expectations; and, I say good riddance. Who wants to share a prison sentence with their boss, anyway?
Doug Faneuil is one executive assistant who learned the hard way just what personal accountability really means. Almost overnight, he became the government's star witness in trials against his boss and his boss's client who were charged with lying to securities investigators about why Martha Stewart dumped her ImClone stock. Faneuil found himself upfront and personal before a jury trial and one being played out on the international stage to boot.
This case hits a nerve with administrative professionals everywhere. Most of your e-mails declared you would not have lied for your boss in the first place-which I was happy to hear. Nevertheless, most of you empathized with Faneuil and his dilemma. A few of you even said you have been there yourself. "I sympathize with his [Faneuil's] predicament, and can say from experience I have had to make that decision to tell the truth or not, while under oath," wrote Jan Pierce of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. "While I personally believe no amount of money is worth making one lower their personal standards and compromise their ethics, I am amazed at the number of employers who push the boundaries of ethics and legality when dealing with their employees, etc., and how many employees tolerate that kind of treatment."
Faneuil said in his trial testimony that he was pressured into lying about what his boss said and did, and then he admitted participating in the cover up of those lies. Perhaps instinctively, he believed his defense could be a simple statement: "My boss told me to do it!" After all, it worked for Fawn Hall, Col. Oliver North's secretary in the Iran-Contra hearings when she explained, 10 years ago, why she shredded some documents and smuggled others out of their quarters. Those days are long gone, however. Hall, incidentally, was just plain lucky; she narrowly missed being prosecuted when, at the last moment, she was granted immunity.
But Faneuil's testimony, "I felt I would be fired if I didn't lie," reflected the unspoken loyalty obligation expected of the boss/assistant relationship of yesteryear. All admins must have felt a collective chill when they learned that Faneuil testified that his boss-without explicitly asking him to lie-repeatedly pressured him to back up his and Stewart's assertions. Let's be honest about this, shall we? The pressure a boss can bring to bear on an admin can be (at times) intense, even though it may be subtle. Unfortunately, for Faneuil, this pressure was related to an illegal act.
I believe most managers today want their admins to feel accountable for their own actions (especially in this post-Enron era). They champion the ethical atmosphere in the workplace and recognize this can only be accomplished by employees embracing their accountability. Also, I believe most admins today would do everything they could to reconcile their ethics with their boss's request.
But what if you aren't so lucky? What if your boss does ask you to lie for him/her? Perhaps individuals who are scurrilous enough to want you to lie for them would probably not be so bold as to directly ask you to do so. Instead, they may circle around the issue and phrase their request another way. However, you know you are being asked to lie.
Repeat the request back to your boss. Put it right back in his or her lap clearly and succinctly. Ask the simple question: "In other words, Jane, you wish me to LIE for you?" This will accomplish two things: (a) Jane will realize you fully understand what you are being asked to do and, also, that you recognize it is an unethical request, and (b) Jan will have the opportunity to withdraw her request and save face (thereby solving your problem).
What if Jane doesn't back off and presses on with: "Yes, I want you to lie for me"? Then, you have to take a definitive stand as the professional you are.
This is your time to say "no." It's always best to respond immediately to an unethical request. "Uncomfortable" is a good word to use, because it is neither threatening nor challenging. Simply state you are uncomfortable with her request and will not accommodate her.
It's important to clearly state that you "may have to be held accountable some day." No one can argue against that defense for long. And, Jane will just have to go elsewhere for a co-conspirator.
Remember to document the entire incident. This is important for your protection. In Faneuil's situation, I would go one step further. His boss's request was regarding illegal activity; so, you need to protect yourself immediately and properly. Contact someone in the human resources department (or whoever in a higher authority is appropriate at your company) and request an immediate, confidential meeting at which you can then relay your boss's illegal request and how you responded. And, of course, document, document, document.
A few things will inevitably occur if you say "no" to an unethical or illegal request by someone. The person will probably be upset with you; the person will understand why you are saying no (even though they probably won't acknowledge it); the person will respect you for saying no (and respect always trumps popularity); and the person will never ask you to do it again (you've established your professionalism and solved the problem besides).
How different would Doug Faneuil's life be today if he had just taken the high ground and said no to his boss at the very beginning? Actually, his boss and even Martha may have stayed out of trouble if his refusal to participate caused his boss to rethink his own intentions, thereby possibly avoiding the entire scandal.
I don't believe anyone needs to lie in the business world today. Even the harmless telephone "white lie" (stating someone is to in his/her office when they are) can be fielded with the words, "She is unavailable. May I take a message?" Delores Furlow of Georgia adds that "the word 'unavailable' differs from 'she's not in.' It is one thing to cover for your boss; it is quite another thing to lie."
I've always believed the old adage: "If you tell a lot of white lies, you soon become color blind."
I am also proud of the responses readers gave reinforcing their positions as professionals of high standards. "Lying is never right. The truth always comes out. And, if you've lied you have lost your integrity, which is difficult to get back," says Gay Oswait, executive assistant at Randall Publishing Co. in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
"If you lie for an unethical boss, you lose your self respect," says CarolAnn Smallwood, executive assistant in Stratford, Connecticut.
Teri K. Seybt, Internet administrator at Ducane Gass Grills Inc. in Columbia, South Carolina, sums it up: "To me, a job is not as important as losing your self-worth and self-esteem in order to please someone else by lying."
These are powerful words threading through their comments: integrity, self-respect, conscience, self-worth, loyalty, and self-esteem. They certainly define the professional of today. "Let's not forget that an executive assistant in the position of Faneuil must surely be aware of the applicable rules and regulations of the industry and blind loyalty should not even be on his radar screen," says Adella C. LaRue CPS of Kansas City, Missouri. "If he was not aware of all of this, then he should not be deemed a professional executive assistant in the first place."
Colleen Rowley, the FBI whistleblower, has this to say about loyalty: "Loyalty to whomever you work for is extremely important. The only problem is it is not the most important thing. And, when it comes to not admitting mistakes, or covering up or not rectifying things only to save face, that's a problem."
All of us expect to be loyal admins, but some bosses simply do not deserve our loyalty.
The Martha Stewart scandal is a wake-up call for all admins today: Be prepared to be held accountable for everything you do, period. Incidentally, Faneuil was not the only admin to testify during this high-profile trial. Both the secretary to Sam Waksal, the now-jailed ImClone Systems Inc. founder, and Stewart's personal secretary were key witnesses as well.
No employee today can afford to become a co-conspirator in unethical, illegal, or immoral activity. It does not matter your position-you must be accountable for your own actions because those actions may ultimately land you in a courtroom some day. Your testimony has the potential to ultimately tumble an empire even as huge as Stewart's.
In my extensive study of ethics, I have learned that when employees accept the fact that there are going to be consequences-no matter what they do or do not do-things get very, very clear. Things stay muddy, however, when people think they can avoid the issues. "The bottom line is that we have to live with the consequences of our own actions," says Jane Dohmann CPS, executive assistant for Mythics Inc. in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Perhaps Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
A past international president of IAAP, Nan DeMars CPS is an internationally recognized authority and seminar leader on office ethics. She is president of Executary Services in Minneapolis, MN, and author of You Want Me to do What? When, Where, and How to Draw the Line at Work (Simon & Schuster).
Contact Nan for more information about executary consulting services or seminars