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When the Boss Asks HR to Do Something Immoral or Illegal

It has happened at places that Philadelphia-area HR director and consultant Crystal Spraggins, SHRM-SCP, has worked: The boss wanted her, as the HR manager, to do something sketchy or downright illegal. And Spraggins had to delicately find a way to explain why she couldn't comply with an executive's request—or less delicately, to find her way out of the situation or the job.


When a request crosses the line into an illegal action, the situation gets complicated, noted Scott F. Cooper, partner and co-chairman of the Labor and Employment Practice Group at Blank Rome LLP in Philadelphia. "The No. 1 guiding principle in this is that no employee should ever go along with the boss's request" if it's illegal, Cooper said. "You immediately become responsible yourself, and the boss may have a plan so he or she has plausible deniability."

In some states and industries, Cooper said, an employee or HR manager might have a legal obligation to report criminal behavior. For example, someone in a business covered by the federal Sarbanes-Oxley financial services regulatory law might have to disclose acts of wrongdoing to the authorities, he said. 

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"When the Boss Asks HR to Do Something Immoral or Illegal," by Susan Milligan was published in the Society for Human Resource Management on August 16, 2017.