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Ask an Ethicist: Can I turn down a work assignment that goes against my morals?

My boss asked me to create a marketing campaign for a new client, but the client’s environmental record is poor. Sustainability and protecting the environment is something that I am extremely passionate about. I’m worried that saying “no” to the assignment will upset my boss. Should I go against my morals and complete the assignment since it’s my job or should I stick with my instincts and say no?

irector of the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication and an associate professor of advertising and public relations

This article first appeared in Penn State News.

In partnership with the Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State Today’s feature column, Ask the Ethicist, aims to shed light on ethical questions from our readers. Each article in this column will feature a different ethical question answered by a Penn State ethicist. We invite you to ask a question by filling out and submitting this form. An archive of the columns can be found on the Rock Ethics Institute website

Question: My boss asked me to create a marketing campaign for a new client, but the client’s environmental record is poor. Sustainability and protecting the environment is something that I am extremely passionate about. I’m worried that saying “no” to the assignment will upset my boss. Should I go against my morals and complete the assignment since it’s my job or should I stick with my instincts and say no?

The ethicist responds: The decision to turn down a work assignment can generate anxiety for an employee, especially for a young person or someone who is new to a company. On one hand, you may fear that refusing the assignment will limit your future promotions or other opportunities with the company. Your fears have some grounding. Bosses sometimes see this kind of decision as a lack of loyalty to the company or an unwillingness to be flexible to meet the needs of the company.

On the other hand, taking the assignment may mean constant internal struggle as you make decisions to promote a company that does not match your values. You may feel that you are “selling out” or you may worry that down the road you’ll be asked to do something that you object to even more.

Situations like this are common in the work world, particularly in consulting firms and agencies, which frequently add new clients and rotate employees onto different accounts. You may be asked to work on a project that makes you feel uncomfortable, or the client may promote a social issue that you disagree with.

New employees want to demonstrate that they have what it takes to do well in the job. This also happens in the classroom when a professor integrates engaged scholarship into the course work by assigning students to consult with local businesses and nonprofits. Professors typically choose clients that are not objectionable to students, but sometimes a student’s personal beliefs do not match the client’s work.

Many consulting firms and agencies have an “opt out” policy that allows employees to choose not to work with a specific client because of personal or religious beliefs that disagree with a client’s stand. You should not be afraid to take this option. If your company does not have a policy, you still have the option to approach your boss to discuss your concerns about the client. You may find that other employees also feel apprehension about the client. As a practice, when researching potential employers, you should try to determine if they have this kind of policy.

At the end of the day, you will be the one to decide whether you are willing to take on the client's work. If you accept the assignment, you should honor your commitment and complete the work, unless progressively more unreasonable requests are made or you encounter information that creates additional ethical questions. If you decline the assignment, you will need to accept any career consequences that you face, but you should have confidence because you stood up for what you believed in, and likely, you will gain the respect of your peers for taking a stand. Your career will be long, and you may face similar decisions at times. Deciding what you believe in and what you are willing to compromise on early will allow you to live with integrity.

Interested in learning more about addressing ethical issues in the workplace? Visit the Arthur W. Page Center’s lesson on ethical issues. Faculty who wish to contribute to ethics curriculum development can learn more through our Call for Grant Proposals.

Denise Bortree is the director of the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication and an associate professor of advertising and public relations in the College of Communications

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