You and your boss have a completely normal and healthy professional relationship. You pride yourselves on your open and honest communication style. You respect each other both in and out of the office. And, you even stop and say a polite “hello” when you run into each other at the grocery store on a Saturday afternoon.

Everything between the two of you is completely fine. Then, it happens. Your boss asks you to do something that makes you totally uncomfortable. Whether he asked you to fire your own co-worker, lie to another team about a project’s status, or pick up his children from daycare, your manager’s request seems either awkward, unethical, or both.

So, what do you do? Obviously, because it’s your boss, you feel pressured to enthusiastically agree to every direction and demand. But, your moral compass is causing your stomach to twist into knots.

Don’t spiral into a panic yet! You can navigate your way through this sticky situation while keeping both a clean conscience and your job. Here’s how!

1. Don’t Respond Immediately

First things first, you want to do your best to avoid replying to your boss right then and there. This is a delicate situation, so you need to treat it as such and take some time to determine your best course of action.

Additionally, if you feel pressured to respond in the heat of the moment, you might wind up not being so satisfied with your answer. Either you’ll agree to the request against your better judgment, or you’ll stutter and stammer your way through a meek and uncertain refusal that could be interpreted as offensive.

2. Evaluate the Situation

Now that you’ve managed to remove yourself from the conversation (at least for a little while), it’s time to mull over your boss’ request and determine what exactly is making you uneasy.

Is this task something that makes you uncomfortable simply because it’s outside of your standard job duties, or is it actually an unethical or unreasonable demand? Do you need to get somebody else in the office involved? Would completing this request significantly help your boss out and push your career forward, or does it present serious risk of damage to your professional reputation and personal ethics? Or worse, could you get in trouble or fired?

It’s difficult to figure out exactly how you want to respond until you know the root of your anxiety. So, make sure you take some time to figure that out.

3. Determine Your Best Method for Response

So, you’ve determined how you want to move forward. Now, it’s time to let your boss know. But, should you set up an appointment to talk it over with him or her in person? Or, will a simple email suffice?

Well, typically your best rule of thumb is to respond using the same communication channel that your manager used to make the request. If your boss asked you in person, then you’ll want to talk it over with him or her that same way. However, if your supervisor sent a brief email to ask something of you, you can reply in that same message. And, if the demand was indeed unethical, remember to save that email thread! You might need it.

4. Craft Your Response

Determining how you want to respond is one thing. But, figuring out exactly what to say is a completely separate battle. Whether you’re agreeing to your boss’ request or turning it down, you want to do so in a way that’s concise, eloquent, and clearly states your expectations.

So, what the heck do you say? Well, it depends on the situation.

If You’re Agreeing

Well, this one’s pretty easy! Say something along the lines of, “I’d be happy to take care of that for you today. Do you anticipate this becoming a regular part of my job duties? Or, is this a one-time thing?” This ensures that you’re on the same page about what exactly you’re agreeing to.

If You’re Turning Your Boss Down

Perhaps the request isn’t unethical per se, but it’s not something you’re not completely at ease with doing (remember to be reasonable with this, by the way—you still need to actually do your job). Try responding with, “I’m sorry, but I’m just not comfortable completing that task. Is there something else I can do to help you out? Please let me know.”

This shows your boss that you’re not willing to ignore your conscience in order to blindly follow any demand, but you’re still prepared to help him or her out with sensible requests.

If You’re Confident the Request Is Unethical

Needing to respond to a completely unethical and immoral request opens up an entirely new can of worms. If your boss made the demand in an email, often your best bet is to print the message and head straight to HR without responding directly. However, if you’re engaged in an in-person conversation that requires you to react immediately, take a deep breath and say, “That request feels unethical to me, and I just don’t feel comfortable doing it.” It’s very likely your boss is aware of that fact and won’t push you any harder after you vocalize it. However, you should still follow that up with a visit to your HR department just to get it all in writing.

5. Document It

Of course, this step is really only important if your boss’ demand was unethical. So, if your manager asked you to do something that seemed dishonorable or shady, you absolutely need to keep documentation of the incident.

Again, if the exchange occurred via email, ensure that you hang onto those messages. If nothing else, mark down the date and time and record a brief summary of the exchange. It might not hold as much water as the words straight out of your boss’ mouth, but it counts for something in a pinch.

The dynamic between you and your boss can be somewhat delicate. And, when your supervisor asks you to do something that makes you uneasy, your relationship can become even trickier. Follow these steps in order to get through the uncomfortable conversation with both your conscience and your professional reputation intact!

Photo of working woman courtesy of Shutterstock.

Updated 6/19/2020