Coping When the Boss Lacks a Moral Compass

    You thought you’d landed the perfect position in a reputable company and that the future looked promising. And then, a few months into the job, you discover the worst — your CEO is a swindler. You’ve unknowingly signed on with a company headed by an unethical, unscrupulous executive, and it may be only a matter of time before it all comes down in flames.

    Unfortunately, this scenario isn’t as uncommon as you might think. A Harris poll found that only 30 percent of employees at large organizations believed their top managers displayed integrity and morality. Oftentimes, the executives’ lack of moral compass fell along the lines of viewing the business as an extension of their lavish lifestyles, rather than a real corporation with investors.

    But not only can the actions of crooked CEOs land them in jail if their business abuses catch up with them, they also are likely to affect the bottom line. Research shows that CEOs with low character ratings yield far less the return on assets than their principled counterparts.

    If you suspect you’re working for a crooked boss, take measures to protect yourself while waiting for his day of reckoning.

    1. Restore the client’s confidence.If you find yourself a go-between who must neutralize your client’s ire when the boss has been spinning the truth, seek to solve the immediate problem and restore confidence — if not in the company, at least in you. Consider comping the client with free services, or offering a deep discount. Make it a point of answering your clients’ calls and be a sympathetic sounding board for their fury.
    2. Set the record straight.When you overhear the accounts payable department making excuse upon excuse to unpaid vendors, red flags should go up. Take note if you observe any questionable activity. Is there an erroneous number on a balance sheet, or inaccurate line item on an expense report? Send a politely worded email that simply asks the question about what appears incorrect. Keep any accusatory tone out of it that could raise hackles. If your boss ignores your emails or doesn’t provide a satisfactory answer, you can surmise that you’re on to something. Remember, emails count as legal documents.
    3. Plan your exit strategy.Research reviews of your company (start with to find out if anything troublesome comes up that confirms your suspicions. If so, consider it a Code Yellow and start planning your next move. Reach out to industry leaders through networking or informational interviews. Update your online profiles and extend your social media reach. Share your intention with someone who can evaluate your eligibility for your new dream position. Try to find a good fit with an upstanding company before moving on.
    4. Bow out gracefully.Tempting as it may be to blow the whistle on any suspected or proven corruption, it’s best if you leave relationships intact until you’ve cut all ties with the company. Civilized manners on your part may help with getting a needed reference. Later, when you’re gratefully established at a firm with ethical leadership, you can delete any mention of your former employer from your résumé in case the boss’s indiscretions finally catch up with him.

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    Vicky Oliver is a leading career development expert and the multi-bestselling author of five books, including 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions (Sourcebooks 2005), named in the top 10 list of “Best Books for HR Interview Prep,” Bad Bosses, Crazy Coworkers & Other Office Idiots (Sourcebooks, 2008); and 301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions (Skyhorse 2010). She is a sought-after speaker and seminar presenter and a popular media source, having made over 700 appearances in broadcast, print, and online outlets. For more information, visit

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