How To Be A Good Person When You’re Pressured To Act Unethically

Three steps will keep you from crossing to the dark side.

Barry Davret
Jan 26 · 5 min read

Let’s suppose you’re at work and your boss demands you take part in a scheme to exploit or cheat another human being. Would you go along with it, or would you risk your job and refuse?

It happened to me once.

I followed orders like one of the mindless automatons in the Milgram Experiments — test subjects who administered fake electric shocks at the behest of a man in a white lab coat, or in my case, an expensive suit.

It began when a hiring agent for an auto dealership seduced me with promises of a kinder and gentler way to sell cars. No more unsavoury tactics reminiscent of those husky guys in plaid blazers, smoking fat cigars.

For two weeks, they trained twenty of us on their humane approach to sales before shipping us off to the dealer.

The Big Lie

On our first day at the dealership, the General Manager told us, “Forget everything they taught you. We do things my way.”

It was his daddy’s business, so he could do what he wanted.

I knew I was in trouble that first morning. A woman arrived and walked the lot, browsing the selection of cars.

“Go get her, Davret,” my manager said.

I walked towards the customer.

“No,” my manager barked. “Run after her.”

She saw me approach, and before I could speak, she said, “Just looking, I don’t need help.”

I let her be and walked back towards the building.

My manager stormed over to me. “What the fuck was that? Go back. Get her inside.”

She sped out of the lot, and he chewed me out for having let a lead escape — a scene that would repeat every time fresh meat escaped without slaughter. But that experience was merely the precursor to the next challenge.

The fleecing of the young pregnant lady

Weeks later, a young pregnant woman and her mom pulled up to the dealership. The young woman wanted a new car, something inexpensive. I showed her our least expensive model. She liked it, so I gave her a finance form to fill out.

I looked at her poverty-level income, listened to her converse with her mom in Spanish, and knew they were going to devour her.

I should have told her to leave and save her money. Instead, I showed the paperwork to my manager, who then asked the woman if her mother would cosign the loan.

She nodded and translated into Spanish for her mother.

At that point, my manager must have smelled the scent of newly minted cash. He handed me the offer: a down payment and monthly payment far exceeding anything reasonable.

I explained the cost, and she agreed to it without negotiation.

“No negotiation? Shit,” my manager said upon hearing the news. “Where are we going to put this money? The finance company will never accept this.”

He called over the GM, who assured us, “Add in some pinstriping and a few other options.”

I could have pulled this woman aside and told her to run out the door, but that would have gotten me fired, so I remained silent.

The wad of cash

They weren’t done with her yet. I escorted her to the finance office where they closed the deal, adding a pricey service contract on top of her exorbitant price.

That night, the GM handed me a wad of cash as a bonus for making “the sale of the day.”

My manager noticed my lack of enthusiasm and pressed me.

“We took advantage of her,” I said.

“You’re not responsible for another adult’s decisions.” He gave me a pat on the back. “It gets easier.”

The next morning, I called the dealership and quit my job.

How to Escape an Ethical Crisis

Yes, I crossed a line and had I continued to do so, I would have turned into someone like my manager — the kind of person who no longer felt pain when they damaged another human being.

I sacrificed my ethics, but not to make a sale. I did so because I feared the consequences had I refused to go along with the scam. My submission to their tactics shocked me, but it shouldn’t have.

As many studies suggest, there’s a difference between how we think we’ll act in an ethical crisis versus how we behave when it happens.

I made some poor choices, but I quit before the job permanently ruined me. These steps enabled my escape.

Remind yourself of the kind of person you are

Getting comfortable with cheating, lying, and fleecing scared me. It was inconsistent with the type of person I thought I was. When I returned home and thought about my actions, it forced me to confront my choices.

Sure, lots of folks who do bad things probably experience the same crisis of conscience but still venture to the dark side. Often, it takes more than a self-pep-talk.

Eliminate social pressure

An armchair critic might call me weak for not quitting in person. They may be right. But had I informed them of my resignation on their home turf, they would have tried to talk me into reconsidering. And they might have succeeded.

Removing yourself from the influence of social pressure and authority makes it easier for you to act in alignment with your self-image.

Burn your bridges

When my manager called after I had quit, he told me I could be one of the best. It would just take some adjustment. I told him my conscience wouldn’t let me and hung up before he could reply. They never called again.

Make a clean break. Be an ass if you must. Once I had burned that relationship, I knew I’d never fall prey to their influence again.

Everyone likes to think they’d do the right thing when faced with an ethical challenge. It’s not always easy, especially under the weight of authority and social pressure. Good people sometimes make bad decisions.

Remind yourself of your ethics. Isolate yourself from social pressure. Burn your bridges.

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Thanks to Niklas Göke, Jordan Gross, and Kelly Eden

Barry Davret

Written by

Writer. Experimenter in life, productivity and creativity. Contact: barry@barry-davret dot com.

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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