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My team's project was cancelled directly by the CEO, but my manager has decided that we should keep working on it. In the headcount request spreadsheet for the next quarters, my manager is inflating the amount of time necessary to do the projects we are supposed to be doing, so we can still keep going with this project.

Is my manager's action ethical? If not, is it still a normal kind of thing that CEOs know will happen? And how should I respond? Should I refuse to join in with this? Or is it still okay for me to do what my manager tells me to do?

My main concern is about the practical effects for me, not about the ethics of other people. I want to work on projects that have the backing of the CEO, Chairman, and Board, because it means that they'll get delivered. This is important for my career ambitions, and also important to me personally, because I want to change the world through technology. I've decided to keep working on this project, but maybe look to join a different project that has better chances of furthering my career.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Neo Feb 26 at 1:31
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    You may also want to consider the possibility that, although the publicly stated position is that the project has been cancelled, there may be other behind-the-scenes negotiations going on that your manager and CEO cannot discuss with you at this stage due to NDA, but the project needs to be kept warm... – Steve Feb 26 at 12:56
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    Is your manager more or less competent and/or informed than your CEO ? Their mileage may vary a lot. – fraxinus Feb 26 at 16:16
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    Keep in mind that if your manager keeps pushing on this and inflates actual hours worked, and that gets used for billing, that there are legal implications that you may shoulder just by having certain knowledge. – NDEthos Feb 26 at 17:22
  • It's unclear to me whether your CEO knows you know that the project is cancelled, or if he would reasonably expect you to know. – Michael J. Feb 28 at 0:31

13 Answers 13

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Normally, you should do what your manager asks you to do. Unless the CEO personally reached out to your team and asked you to stop working on the project, I would continue to do what your manager is asking. The manager will be the one to have to deal with the consequences of the CEO discovering that he has ignored his request.

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    Yep. Basically, try to respect the chain of command. – DarkCygnus Feb 24 at 21:05
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    "The manager will be the one to have to deal with the consequences" Except that the manager is lying about the team's performance to his bosses and making them look incompetent as a result. – nick012000 Feb 24 at 22:08
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    Make sure to document the fact that your manager is telling you to do this though. I got burned by my boss having me do his priorities, and he failed to pass on the CEO's priorities to me. – Willem Renzema Feb 25 at 3:36
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    @nick012000 Most CEOs have no idea how long which tasks take, so inflating estimates usually doesn't have an impact on the perceived performance of the team. As long as the manager doesn't talk negatively to the CEO about the teams performance, the team should be fine. – Morfildur Feb 25 at 7:34
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    I would add a caveat here to indicate that you should at least keep yourself protected. Blame doesnt always follow the chain of command. – gburton Feb 25 at 13:55
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Unless there are concerns about:

  • regulatory violations
  • health or human safety
  • criminal activity

it's usually best to follow your manager's direction, and let them deal with potential politics, long term planning, or other issues related to company decision-making. The scenario you've presented is hard to evaluate, because we don't know the inner workings of your company or what's considered "acceptable." Suffice to say, it's not unusual for people in leadership positions to disagree, or to take directions which are contradictory with other leaders.

If you're concerned about backlash, make sure there's some documentation of your manager giving you specific direction. If you were told verbally, you can always just send a quick email and say,

Hey boss, just wanted to confirm that I'll be focusing on the ACME project for the next 12 weeks as discussed in our meeting this morning.

That way, if anyone does ever question your time spent on the project, you've got something to fall back on.

If you're unhappy working in an environment where leaders contradict each other, you can consider switching jobs, but make sure you're doing so in a way that'll help you find a place you'll actually be happy: in interviews, for instance, you could ask questions about the company's planning or strategy in order to determine if they strictly follow any specific process that you'd be more happy with.

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    And when the boss walks past your desk and says: "I saw your email - yes, consider it confirmed that you'll be focusing on the ACME project for the next 12 weeks" ...? – mcalex Feb 25 at 7:36
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    @mcalex look him in the eye and ask that he please do that in writing. He probably knows that the things he's doing are against the wishes of the CEO, and he knows that you know. A good manager will allay your fears, a manager that is planning to toss you under the bus anyway is not worth respecting so you might as well go to the CEO. – Borgh Feb 25 at 11:19
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    @Borgh I think the absence of rebuttal for such an email would be enough papertrail. To me, forcing the written confirmation from manager would be unnecessarily agressive and threatening. – Pac0 Feb 25 at 11:43
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    Are you willing to bet your job on that? Because your manager might now go "well I *told* him that you canceled the ACME job but he just woudn't listen, the insubordinating bastard" and you get to pack your stuff into a single box. – Borgh Feb 25 at 12:39
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    @Borgh There’s a simple rebuttal if your manager tries to play this card: “If what the manager says were true they’d simply have replied to my email. I have a paper trail. They don’t. Ball’s in their court.” — Would I bet my job on it? Well, if the CEO is reasonable, sure. If the CEO isn’t reasonable, any other strategy will likewise fail, by definition. – Konrad Rudolph Feb 26 at 10:25
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Your manager is lying about your team's performance to his bosses. Talk to his manager about this, since it makes you look bad.

Basically, if it was just your manager ignoring the directives of his bosses to do his own thing, sure, get his directives to you in writing so that you can say that you were just doing what your boss said to do.

However, that's not all he's doing - he's lying to his bosses about your team's performance, and that makes you look bad. If they start looking for areas in the business to cut during layoffs, the under-performing teams are likely to be the first to go. Additionally, by taking this course of action, he's harming the business and thereby making those layoffs more likely to occur to begin with.

So, as a result, I would talk about this to his boss, so that you can try to salvage your team's reputation before things get even worse. I would, however, ask your boss's boss to refrain from mentioning that you were the one who told him, to avoid your boss retaliating against you.

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    +1 If I were the CEO and I discovered that a significant part of my company had being working on a project I had cancelled, and in doing that they were lying to me, directly and indirectly, and faking plans and timesheets, I would lose my trust in all of them and look to get rid of them – Dave Gremlin Feb 25 at 10:37
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    +1. Frankly I'm surprised at the top comments suggesting to respect the chain of command. If your manager is doing something blatantly unethical and insubordinate then you have a duty to go over his head and blow the whistle to his superiors. You can even try to do so anonymously if possible. – Sean Burton Feb 25 at 10:39
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    Frankly, I'm surprised that you all think this is an appropriate course of action. Sure, go ahead and talk to your boss's boss before ever bringing up your concerns with him. You'll earn yourself the reputation of a rat. – AleksandrH Feb 25 at 16:43
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    @AleksandrH "snitches get stitches" is the mentality of 12 year olds and gang members, not a healthily functioning company. The manager is committing borderline fraud, somebody should be informed. – mbrig Feb 25 at 18:30
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    @mbrig In a healthily functioning company, there's no reason why an employee should not be able to consult their manager first, before resorting to rash actions like going over their manager's head and reporting their behavior to a higher-up. If there's the slightest chance that OP misunderstood the situation, he's going to be digging his own grave. – AleksandrH Feb 25 at 18:36
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A lot of good answers already, just to add one thing: Why not talk to your manager about it? Just ask him if he can explain the situation to you because you're confused about it.

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    Perfect place to start. The rest of us have jumped the gun a bit, here. – ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere Feb 25 at 13:56
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    Literally the most obvious and reasonable course of action. Why is everyone so paranoid and willing to blow the whistle? – AleksandrH Feb 25 at 17:03
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    @AleksandrH, because stunts like the OP's manager is pulling has burned a lot of people. If the manager was doing things "right", they would have gotten the team together right after the CEO killed the project to get a consensus to see if this is what the team wanted, then acted accordingly. As it is, the manager is making the decision unilaterally and risking everyone's job. If the OP can find out about it, other people will and bad things will start happening. Especially to people who knew about the situation and didn't report it. – computercarguy Feb 25 at 17:44
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The term chain of command was already mentioned a few times but IMHO depending on your company and the working culture in your country, chain of command doesn't apply here.

In most companies I have been working in the past doing the right thing was always preferred and honored instead of just following orders. And even in the German military, you must not follow an order when the order is against the law.

At the same time, I have seen many projects in the past that the management didn't know about for various reasons. Some ended is a disaster and people were fired, some ended very rewardingly.

I think you have to make your decision about who to follow, your manager or the CEO. Some things you might want to consider:

  • When the cancellation was not officially announced that you might get away with telling you didn't know about and were just following your manager's orders. Or does the CEO know that you should know that the project was canceled (perhaps there was a meeting about that or an email)? If so then your manager will not be able to shield you when something goes wrong.
  • How expensive is the project? What are the chances? When there is a high chance that this project will be a huge success then you might want to follow your manager and be in the winning team. But keep in mind that even in the case of an success the CEO might decide to punished everyone involved in this project because they clearly did not follow their orders.
  • Who is the leader who is more likely to stay when both start a fight? Perhaps the CEO is weak and your manager wants this conflict to get the CEO's position and your manager might think that it is possible to get that position in the case of success or conflict or simply because your manager has the support of the board.

Again, I think in modern companies you will never get away with the excuse you were just following your manager's orders. And being drawn into conflict like this, unfortunately, means you have to choose. And all choices have their changes and risks and whatever you do you will piss off your manager or the CEO. Who is more important for your carreer?

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    I agree with this. For the companies I've been in, I'd raise this issue first with the manager regarding inflating the workload, and then beyond the manager if I found it necessary; but yes - cultural (both company and regional) differences will be a factor. – Allan S. Hansen Feb 25 at 13:01
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    The American military respects the Chain of Command, but they also have the directive to only follow legal orders. There are procedures to follow in this case, which your company may also have. Normally HR isn't your friend, but sometimes they can be, and this might be one time, if it's within your procedures to follow for reporting abuses of power. Yes, the company might benefit from the project, yes it might be world changing, but is it worth your job and reputation? If it is, then follow your manager out the door and do it someplace else where it's wanted. – computercarguy Feb 25 at 17:37
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    Also, the excuse of "I was just following orders" rarely works. Look up the "Nuremberg Defense" and see how well that worked. It's a very different situation, but you can still lose when trying to use it. – computercarguy Feb 25 at 17:40
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    @computercarguy "'I was just following orders' rarely works" Perhaps, but "I went against the order because it is unethical and immoral" also rarely works. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. :( Ex: people getting pissed off at sheriffs who insist they will refuse to act on very controversial laws which go against their moral fiber. Or jurors who refuse to give a guilty verdict on similar grounds. – Aaron Feb 25 at 20:14
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    @PLL I disagree. If the CEO knew that the OP knew that the project was canceled, for example, because the CEO told the whole team to stop working on the project. Then it is not a reasonable answer because even when the OP just followed the order of the manager they still didn't follow the order of the CEO. I would expect the team to talk directly to the CEO when they got conflicting orders from the CEO and the manager under those circumstances. When the team does not talk to the CEO then I would blame all of them. – spickermann Feb 26 at 15:14
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Good answers already, but I wanted to mention some possibilities where your manager might be not only behaving ethically, but also acting for the benefit of both the company and the employees (it does happen sometimes...).

  • If the project needs a little more work to get it to a logical conclusion.

  • If the original project has benefits that could be transferred to other projects (in this case billing the time to the other projects would be an accurate reflection of what's going on).

  • If your manager has explained what they are doing to the CEO, or to an intermediate director.

All three of these could be true : I've been that manager. Maybe not, too, but at the moment we're not in a position to know.

Worst case, the best answer to your manager going maverick around the CEO is unlikely to be that you should go maverick around your manager.

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The answers telling you to respect the chain of command are correct.

But that doesn't mean that you still cannot voice your concerns. In particular, I would recommend emailing your manager something to this effect:

Hi [Manager],

I've enjoyed working on [project name] so far and look forward to seeing it go live!

I'm a bit worried because I [learned/read/overheard] that [CEO name] decided to call it off, and I wasn't sure if things changed since I [read/heard] that.

Do we still have the go-ahead from him to continue working on it? I want to make sure our hard work doesn't go to waste.

Thanks!

Sincerely, [Your name]

This does two things:

  1. It provides documented proof that you (courteously) questioned the decision to proceed working on the project, despite what you knew about the CEO's decision. This is important in case there's any fallout.

  2. It shows your manager that you are aware that there is a potential contradiction in what leadership is telling you vs. what he's telling you.

Then go from there. Perhaps there's been a miscommunication, and the CEO is in fact okay with your team working on the project. Unless you know for a fact that he called things off, don't assume the worst about what your manager is doing.

I would still continue working on it. Trust your manager's judgment, unless he has given you any indication that he's actually "gone rogue."

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    I think this is the best answer I've seen. There's a lot of potential that the situation isn't what OP understands it to be, and jumping the gun is not the right approach. Get the manager's written reassurances that everything is fine, and if shit hits the fan, use that to defend yourself if possible – Ruadhan2300 Feb 26 at 9:45
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This is important ... to me personally, because I want to change the world through technology.

EVERY world-changing technological product I ever worked on started out as somebody somewhere somehow slipping one over on the Big Boss.

You should make a supreme effort to evaluate your manager's position. Does your immediate manager also want to change the world through technology? Will the maverick project do that? If the project gets you all fired, can your manager take it somewhere else, or fund it independently? If the project becomes a golden goose, will the CEO be angry anyway, or will the windfall of wealth and success win him over?

Difficult judgements, I know, and significant risk. But if changing the world was easy and comfortable, everybody would be doing it.

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  • What is your answer? – CGCampbell Feb 25 at 18:02
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    @CGCampbell It appears the answer is "Maybe the boss wants the same thing you do. Look into it further before jumping one way or the other. You might want to side with the manager." – Aaron Feb 25 at 20:17
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    "EVERY world-changing technological product I ever worked on" How many world-changing technological products have you worked on!? – Aaron Feb 25 at 20:18
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    Personal anecdotes aside, there have been some amazing projects in many industries delivered from skunkworks groups, including some that have saved the parent company. But there have also been many people fired and companies shuttered from such projects failing. Project and management status aren't a great indicator of the likelihood of success, nor your personal credit or blame for your involvement. – brichins Feb 26 at 1:05
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Had a similar situation some years back.

In that case, some of the senior managers, including the CEO, not being Technologically oriented, fell back on what they knew best, which was not what was needed, and too much number focus.

My manager on the other hand knew what was needed and how to get them done. At the end of the project (did combination of overtime and task loading), we released not just the official program, but also surprised the board with a totally new product that eventually deprecated the others we were doing officially. The managers above who asked my manager to can his baby felt rather silly. Think what was nice was that the manager made us WANT to work on the project, he made it voluntary, but there was a real sense of accomplishment at the end.

In your case, it depends on the reason your manager decided to go against the CEO. Perhaps the CEO knows this, and it has to be unofficial. But at the end of the day, should the CEO throw his toys out, your manager will have to explain.

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    Yes! In reading all the other answers, I came to the exact same thought. "Maybe the CEO doesn't understand the technology/engineering side, and the manager is trying to 'save' the CEO (and himself, and the company) from the consequences of a bad/uninformed decision. A dangerous game to play, because humans tend to have pride and that can get in the way of good judgement and cause this to be over applied. But it must apply to some (hopefully rare) cases... – Azendale Feb 25 at 15:17
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    ... and, if this is what is happening, then having a one on one meeting with the manager may be good. You can not pick sides, but just talk about the risk you are feeling by doing this as a starting place. Then, if his explanation is one matching this answer, you can talk through the risks of this approach without blaming -- and as someone farther away from the decision than him, you may be able to help him examine the risks and possible rewards of this course of action. And the decision may be to continue, or not. But either way the elephant in the room has been discussed. – Azendale Feb 25 at 15:30
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If you do what your manager is asking you to do, make sure you have your managers instructions in writing and can point to them should things go bad.

Just think about what might happen if the project fails horribly. Your manager has deliberately wasted company resources and you helped him doing it. This is a bad reputation to have!

I'd personally refuse to get involved and report to the SVP if my manager insists. But that's because of my personal experience (I've seen some such projects and none of them ended well for either the company or the people involved) I consider such shady projects a big waste of time. After all, I can just as well work on something that will bring both value to the company and career-advancement to me.

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I would say don't lie such as filling in time sheets incorrectly or misreporting your time.. that looks bad on you. But work on the project and tell the manager that if he personally wants to lie and misreport hours he can be the one to do it. You refuse to sign off on a lie.

But generally, I'd say continue working on the project your manager has told you to work on. Perhaps go out to lunch with and discuss with other coworkers on the project too.

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I'd be very wary of bypassing the normal chain of command even if you're in the right. I was once pushed out because I raised my concerns about a potential fraud.

Is the CEO a bit of a weathervane? If so the cancelled project might be top priority next week. And CEO's don't last forever, maybe the manager knows something you don't.

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Change the project as soon as possible, maybe even try to get as far from your current manager as possible.

  • You can talk to your manager and share your concerns. He won't like that your are not on his side. Maybe he thinks he cannot trust you anymore.
  • You can talk to your manager's manager or even the CEO. Then your manager gets in trouble and he won't like you anymore. And every other manager in your company will know that you are not trustworthy regarding what they want to be kept secret.
  • You can stay calm and do as your manager told you. Once the CEO notices that the project wasn't canceled, the manager might want to blame you or at least give you part of the blame. That might not end well for your career.

So, the only way I see is to get as far from the situation as possible.

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