Don’t Be a Horrible (Unethical) Boss!

Don’t Be a Horrible (Unethical) Boss!



Do you know a “leader” who is guilty of the same appalling behaviors portrayed in the “Horrible Bosses” movies? Or, perhaps, you have made similar ethical mistakes? If so, you may be de-motivating your employees. When a leader breaks the rules, cheats, lies or indulges in behaviors that reveal a lack of moral principles, he or she loses employees’ respect. And, without your employees’ respect, you cannot lead.

Also, when you give in to unethical behaviors, you give your employees permission to do the same. Padding mileage reports, splurging on business travel expenses, failing to take responsibility for mistakes are all examples of poor role modeling. As a leader, you must display integrity and honesty in what you do. Otherwise, it has a ripple effect that sets the stage for your team.,

Here’s a great ethical decision-making model you can apply to any ethical dilemma so you don’t become a “Horrible Boss”:


  1. Rather than be a “Horrible” (Unethical) Boss, Identify the problem: Gather as much information as you can that will clarify the situation. Be as specific and objective as possible. Writing ideas on paper may help you gain clarity. Outline the facts, separating out assumptions, guesses, or suspicions. Ask yourself:
  • Is it an ethical, legal, or professional problem? Or, is it a combination of more than one of these? If a legal question exists, seek legal advice.
  • Is the issue related to me and what I am or not doing?
  • Is it related to an employee and/or the employee’s significant others and what they are or aren’t doing?
  • Is it related to the organization and its policies and procedures? If the problem can be resolved by implementing a policy, you can look to those guidelines.


  1. Rather than be a “Horrible” (Unethical) Boss, Apply the appropriate code of ethics: After you’ve clarified the problem, refer to your profession’s code of ethics to see if the issue is addressed there. If there is one or more applicable standard, and they are specific and clear, following them should lead to a resolution of the problem. But, in order to apply the ethical standards, you must have read them carefully and understand their implications.

3. Rather than be a “Horrible” (Unethical) Boss, Consider moral principles:

  • Autonomy: allowing a person the freedom of choice and action
  • Non-maleficence: not causing harm
  • Beneficence: do good, be proactive and prevent harm
  • Justice: not necessarily treating all individuals the same, but treating equals equally and un-equals unequally yet proportionately to their differences
  • Fidelity: being loyal, faithful, and honoring commitments.

Determine which principle takes priority for you in each case. Ideally, each principle should be considered. But, when two or more of them are in conflict, you must determine the highest priority.


  1. Rather than be a “Horrible” (Unethical) Boss, Review the relevant professional literature to ensure that you are abiding by the most current professional guidelines when reaching a decision.

5. Rather than be a “Horrible” (Unethical) Boss, Consult with experienced colleagues and/or supervisors. As you review the information you and your colleagues or leadership have gathered, they may find other issues that are relevant or provide a perspective you haven’t considered. They may also be able to identify aspects of the dilemma that you aren’t viewing objectively.

6.  Rather than be a “Horrible” (Unethical) Boss, Check with your state or national professional associations to see if they can provide advice/guidance.

7. Rather than be a “Horrible” (Unethical) Boss, Generate possible options: Brainstorm as many potential options as possible. Be creative and consider all angles. If possible, ask for help from at least one colleague to help you generate options.

8. Rather than be a “Horrible” (Unethical) Boss, Consider the potential consequences of all options and choose a course of action. Considering the information you have gathered and priorities you have set, evaluate each option and assess the potential consequences for all parties involved. What are the implications of each course of action for employees, others involved, and for you? Eliminate the options that clearly do not give the desired results or cause even more problems. Review the remaining options to determine which option or combination of them best fit the situation and address the priorities you’ve identified.

9. Evaluate your selected course of action. Ask yourself if your selected solution meets these criteria:

  • Justice: is it fair? Would you treat others the same in this situation?
  • Publicity: Would you want your behavior displayed publicly?
  • Universality: Could you recommend the same course of action to another leader in the same situation?
Barbara Jordan, 
Author, Trainer/Facilitator, Executive Coach
LPI (Leadership Practices Inventory) Certified Coach
DISC Certified Behavior Analyst
AdvantEdge Success Coaching & Training
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