Picture: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times (ONLY FOR USE WITH ARTICLE)
Picture: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

All of us are asked to break the rules at work at some point or another. Do we go along to get along, or do we resist? How we address such disputes can have serious consequences for us and our organizations. Here are some tactics to keep in mind.

1. Appeal to the self-interest of those in charge. It’s possible that they are unaware of the implications of what they are suggesting. So exploring their requests, and framing them in terms of the potential costs and implications for them, is a good way to test the waters. This also signals your discomfort and gives them a way to quietly withdraw their demands without losing face.

2. Appeal to their better angels. Emphasizing what seems fair and decent, particularly if those in charge are caught up in their more banal intentions, can help to increase their dissonance.

3. Just say no. If what you are being asked to do is sufficiently unethical, immoral or illegal, then your sincere refusal may be enough to worry or intimidate them into backing off and reconsidering their demands.

4. Say no louder. When saying no alone doesn’t work, it’s time to bring in others. This can mean speaking with friends and colleagues and getting their advice and support. If this is not possible without putting them in jeopardy, then it might be time to speak to your supervisor or human resources officer.

5. Broadcast no. When the previous tactics don’t work, it is time to consider blowing the whistle outside. Whistle-blowers are more likely to be effective if they have high credibility within the organization, forgo anonymity and identify themselves at the outset of the proceedings.

6. Increase your numbers. Another tactic is to change the power dynamic at work by gathering allies. This might mean organizing several people from a department to go to a manager together to express concerns.

7. Take power. If all else fails, it may be time for direct legal action. This tactic, obviously, is the most costly. But it should always be considered as a backup plan should all else fail.

Adapted from "What to Do If Your Boss Asks You to Break the Rules" at HBR.org.

© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp