The Professional Dilemma by Ben Rawal

The Professional Dilemma
by Ben Rawal
Meeting your line manager’s expectations are an important aspect of being successful in your role. However, how would you respond if your boss asked you to undertake a task that was morally or professionally inappropriate? In this article, Ben Rawal shares his own experiences and offers some tips on how you could deal with a similar problem.
Almost 20 years ago, I was applying the final touches to an internal audit report, having reviewed the effectiveness of the financial and operational control framework at one of our clients. I was in the early stages of my career as a part-qualified accountant and was keen to impress my line manager and the business partner team in pursuit of promotion and stardom.

As the audit neared completion, I met with the client to deliver my feedback prior to the report being issued. There were no significant control weaknesses. In fact, it was one of the strongest control environments that I had audited during my brief career, and I was pleased that I could give this feedback to the client. As per our standard reporting timescales, they would receive a draft report within ten working days. I remember leaving the client’s premises with a feeling of positivity having genuinely believed I had undertaken a good job.

Once the draft report was completed, it was passed to my line manager for his review. I remember the conversation vividly: “Ben, you need to change the report”. I asked what he meant by this, to which he replied, “You need to report more issues”. My first response was to apologise. Perhaps I had missed something when conducting my audit tests? Maybe I had drawn an incorrect conclusion from my findings? I queried what I had done wrong, and my line manager said “We need to make it look worse. The director team at the client need this report to highlight lots of issues with the area you have audited, and there isn’t enough in here. You need to change the report”.

What would you have done?

Close-up landscape photograph perspective of a person's right hand holding a physical stylus tool to tap onto/toward a tablet screen while there is a coffee mug with coffee in it, a laptop, and a smartphone all nearby
How does it feel?
I will reveal how I dealt with my line manager’s request later in this article. In the meantime however, how did it feel for you when reading through my experience of being an auditor and being asked to do something that wasn’t right?

Interestingly, when I recite this example to my existing clients and ask them how they feel, they generally say one of the following:

  • That’s just wrong. I feel quite shocked about having to do such a thing because he has asked you to lie.
  • I feel conflicted (and possibly fearful). I know it’s the wrong thing to do, but my line manager has a certain amount of power that could cause me a problem in the future.
  • That’s made me really angry. I would tell him I want nothing to do with the changes he has asked for.
  • I’m not really that bothered. It didn’t affect me emotionally and if my boss wanted me to do it, I’d do it – especially if it benefitted my career.

You may have felt any or a combination of the feelings mentioned above, which often lead to confusion, doubt and even anxiety because it could potentially lead to a ‘no win’ outcome regardless of what action you take. Such dilemmas can occur in both our professional and personal lives, and often evoke negative feelings that influence our behaviour.

Thinking it through
One of the problems with our emotions is that they will often encourage a more impulsive reaction.

This can lead to actions that we later regret, and in hindsight wish that we had taken more time to consider our approach. Obviously, the opposite can also be true – we overthink our response and it paralyses our ability to make a decision or act.

If you’re asked to undertake a task that makes you feel uneasy or conflicted in some way, it might prove beneficial to wait before you commit to a particular decision. Allow yourself time to consider the request from a logical standpoint, even if this takes a little longer than you or the other individual might hope. This might involve having to ask for additional time to consider how the action should be delivered but will ultimately buy you some time.

Is this normal?
From time-to-time, we may be asked to undertake a task or activity which doesn’t typically align to the normal types of request that we receive from our line manager. Of course, this doesn’t in any way excuse the request that has been made – but it does raise the question around whether there are other factors at play.

One of the common causes of such unexpected behavioural change is stress, or other difficulties being experienced. You may have the advantage of knowing your line manager well, which makes it easier to make predictions about his or her behaviour, and how they behave differently when dealing with stress.

If we refer to my example, was my line manager’s request out of the ordinary? No. I had worked with him for six months, which isn’t a substantial amount of time in a working environment, but enough to build a picture of what he was like as a leader – what he genuinely stood for, what was important to him, and how he behaved under stress. There were clues to the strength of his moral compass, what he valued on a personal level, and his concern for others. Based on these factors, did his request come as a surprise? Not at all.

The ’red flags’ and warning signs may already be there, and perhaps we’ve chosen to ignore them, rather than consider the consistent patterns that exist every day. If however, the request appears to come as a significant surprise, time may be on your side – they may realise themselves that their request was poorly placed.

Professional Ethics and Values
As an accountant working in accordance with ethical codes of practice and supporting frameworks is essential to long-term success in the profession. Furthermore, the fundamental principles of Integrity, Professional Competence and Due Care, and Professional Behaviour are all critical when either being asked, or asking others, to undertake a task.

Most of my accountancy clients can easily recite the fundamental principles within the Code of Ethics that relate to their respective professional accounting body. However, this is generally the easy part. Asking individuals to confirm how they demonstrate compliance with ethics through their behaviours is far more difficult, and a true test of leadership ability: it’s one thing to know that Integrity is critical; it’s another to consistently show this in how you communicate and behave around others.

The request made by my previous line manager clearly failed the requirements of the Code of Ethics. However, 20 years ago my mind would not have focused on whether this demand demonstrated ‘professional behaviour’ or ‘integrity’. Instead, I was more concerned about what would happen to me if I refused to do what was being asked.

It was only some years after I reflected on the situation and recognised that our professional ethics were not upheld.

You will sometimes find similarities between organisational values and professional ethics, especially in the areas of Integrity, Honesty or Professional Behaviour. Such values can also offer a useful reference or starting point when considering whether a request is inappropriate – does it align to your business values, and is it what you would expect from your organisational culture?

Assertive behaviour and challenge
So, you’ve had time to think it through, it’s predominantly normal behaviour from your line manager, and it definitely fails your professional ethics and organisational values. Now what?

Your ability to demonstrate assertive behaviour, or at the very least, offer some degree of challenge, is your next step. Having worked across multiple industries and teams, I recognise that for many individuals consistent, assertive behaviour is tough. For some, it’s even tougher when you need to be assertive with someone in a more senior position than yours, and often seen as impossible by some, when it’s your line manager.

At the essence of assertiveness is the ability to push back on unreasonable requests made by others – to say no. If you struggle to do this, it is likely that you experience a multitude of emotions at the time, including fear, frustration, and the discomfort of possibly ‘letting someone down’.

This will often lead to other emotions (after you’ve said ‘yes’), including shame, regret and even despair. If this is you, focus on buying yourself time – go back to ‘thinking it through’, rather than quickly agreeing to a request that you know isn’t right.

Man and woman are seated down overlooking a white paper document with statistical information on it while another woman nearby is standing and holding a pen plus clipboard overlooking the same white paper document as well in an office room setting environment
Challenging the request is also important and generally offers more time and information for you to consider. Where possible, try to avoid asking the question “Why?” when offering challenge, as it will usually lead to a defensive reaction: the question itself implies that you require justification from the other individual.

When my line manager explained that the report I had written needed to highlight lots of issues, I asked questions including “What sort of issues were they expecting?”, “How many issues are they looking for?”, and “What will happen if we don’t change the report?” Not only did these questions buy me additional thinking time, it also provided some wider context as to what was happening within the client.

I also avoided asking the question “Why does the client want this?”, which may have resulted in a defensive reaction from my line manager. After considering his responses, I confirmed that I would not be changing my report, and would be standing by my overall opinion.

If all else fails…

Your willingness to challenge unacceptable or unethical behaviour is no guarantee for success, but it does clarify your position and what you are prepared / not prepared to do. In the event that your line manager intends to ‘stand firm’ and force through their request, it is now time to explore some other options, including:

  • Internal escalation to a more senior manager, or through other independent options within the business (Ethics Team, Internal Audit);
  • External reporting, such as breaches of ethical standards to the relevant CCAB-I; and
  • Formal whistleblowing mechanisms.

Thankfully, the request made by my line manager was later retracted when I met with one of the managing partners to explain the situation. Shortly after this, my line manager left the business and has since left the profession. Probably a sensible move.

Portrait photograph headshot of Ben Rawal grinning
Ben Rawal,


Ben is the Lead Consultant and owner of Soft Skills, experts at providing behavioural, emotional and leadership training and coaching to compliance professionals