I work at one of the many aerospace companies that do work in the commercial, government research, and defense sector. I've been with the company for a little over a year and in that time I've been fortunate to become a vital member of at least one project.

As of recently, I'm able to work on certain classified projects that my management has hoped I would be able to join eventually. These projects vary in subject and I know very little about them, but I do know the one that I'm slated to join soon I'm joining simply because of timing and the need they have on that team. The issue is, the project heavily involves a variety of weapon systems and it's not the type of project that I ethically support or feel personally comfortable working on.

I used to work for a different company in the same industry for two years that was more defense oriented than my current company and one of my primary reasons for leaving was my personal unhappiness with being involved in the work the company was doing. I didn't tell that to my new employer as I was afraid it would come off as unprofessional and since this employer has a good variety of non-defense work, I thought I could just avoid the work I'm uncomfortable with.

Now I'm trying to figure out how to bring this up to my manager. Because I know that if this project becomes a long term project I'm involved with, then I'll be unhappy and probably looking to leave eventually. I'm fortunate that my manager is a thoughtful one and has told me multiple times in the past that I essentially don't ever have to be stuck on projects I don't want to be stuck on or take on work I don't want. Obviously in practice you take on the ugly work too, but it's nice to know the option to turn down work is there.

I'm just not sure if it comes off as unprofessional or hostile to tell my manager that I don't personally feel comfortable working on a project so involved with weapon systems. I'm afraid it may come across as hostile because a number of my managers and mentors at work take on similar work without issue (as far as I can tell). I'm still willing to work cleared programs, it's just my criteria is a personal one and having my manager try to figure out if a project matches my personal ethics before assigning me anything feels like it could be an unprofessional and uncomfortable situation.

Additional notes/nuance:

  • I'm willing to offer to work on this project short term, as the need is there, if I can transition off of it within an agreed to timeframe

  • I feel valued at work and I think that management would much rather have me there continuing the same work I currently do than have me leave

  • I value sticking to my principles on this much more than I value avoiding the potential career harm this may cause

  • I currently work from home. Any cleared work will require me to come into the office. If possible, I'd like to make it clear to my manager that I'm fine coming into work (many of my older coworkers do and I'm at much lower risk than they are), it's just this particular project/topic that I'm uncomfortable with.

  • 24
    Why do your principles not balk at working on it short term? In terms of ethics if you're compromising for convenience sake then it looks fake. Normally you either take a stand or you don't. Standing halfway up is called a squat, what bears do in the woods.
    – Kilisi
    Commented Aug 6, 2020 at 2:01
  • 2
    In practice, most principles aren't absolutist. Whether you'd like to believe that or not, you can take my principles to have some give in the way described above for the purpose of this question.
    – SP812
    Commented Aug 6, 2020 at 2:05
  • 16
    in practice they are.... or it's not principles, it's something else. My personal and professional principles/ethics are not negotiable. Like any problem you need to be brutally honest with yourself first before looking for a solution. Save the rationalisation and sugar coating for everyone else. No offence intended.
    – Kilisi
    Commented Aug 6, 2020 at 2:11
  • 5
    If an additional example is helpful, imagine the principle of minimizing carbon emissions. It’s not an absolutist principle, because it doesn’t necessitate that you never involve yourself in any action or transaction that includes the production of fossil fuels. It may simply guide someone to minimize their carbon emissions with the additional constraints of necessity and weighted comfort. Imagine my principles in this case to be of a similar nature. If you wouldn’t use the word principle to describe this, then feel free to call it by something else for your deliberation.
    – SP812
    Commented Aug 6, 2020 at 2:31
  • 2
    “Personal ethics” is a contradiction in terms. “Ethics” are a societal or institutional code of conduct; when you’re talking about your own personal beliefs, you’re talking about morals, not ethics.
    – nick012000
    Commented Aug 6, 2020 at 2:46

4 Answers 4


I believe requesting to change projects is perfectly valid given the circumstances you present: you have experience working on demotivating projects, you raise concerns about your ability to remain motivated, and the project is objectively possibly ethicaly problematic, so in my book it's fine to ask. Bonus points since you're willing to compromise short term.

It's not guaranteed to succeed but declining work on ethical basis shows a concern for work impact and is far from being all negative. Some might prefer that to agnostic apathy.

I don't see a scenario where this would come out as hostile, anyway.

  • 2
    This willingness to compromise short term smells fishy to me. It seems like the OP wants to have their cake and eat it -- the approval of their boss for being willing to compromise, and the warm glow of refusing to work on the project because ethics. You can't have it both ways, KG012!
    – TonyK
    Commented Aug 6, 2020 at 19:28

I'm fortunate that my manager is a thoughtful one and has told me multiple times in the past that I essentially don't ever have to be stuck on projects I don't want to be stuck on or take on work I don't want.

If your manager has actually told you that you don't have to take on any work that you don't want, then you simply have to convey the type of work you want and the type of work you don't want. Explain the factors that go into your personal ethical decisions.

Sit down with your manager and explain how you distinguish between the "wants" and the "don't wants". Then, hopefully your manager will only assign projects that fit in the former. If they make a mistake in their assignments, then bring it up as quickly as possible.

This wouldn't work in many (most?) work places. In most shops you would need to accept most assignments, and would likely be better off finding an employer that doesn't deal with projects that don't meet your ethical requirements. But it sounds like your employer is capable of being extremely flexible and that your manager is willing to do so.


I don't think there's anything wrong with declining to work on a project because of your own moral compass - as long as you're willing to accept any consequences, which it sounds like you are.

I'm fortunate that my manager is a thoughtful one and has told me multiple times in the past that I essentially don't ever have to be stuck on projects I don't want to be stuck on or take on work I don't want.

You've been given an appropriate way to handle this already - so grab it. Have a calm, reasonable conversation with your manager about where the "line" is for you. And my advice would be to do that sooner rather than later - give your manager the most amount of time to adjust resource planning.

Also if possible try and go to them with a proposed solution to minimize the impact on the company/team/your manager of you ducking this sort of work. Having once worked somewhere where an employee refused to do any work on a particular client's project (again due to an ethical objection), they didn't even attempt to do this and instead just sat there while the rest of the team had to do significant juggling around of their existing workloads to take on the work this person would ordinarily have done. It wasn't pretty - you could see the resentment start to build as people found their own lives getting more and more stressful, a simple "I know you're having to accommodate me so what can I do to take something else off your plate?" attitude from the objector would have gone a long way.

Some additional advice for the future - if you've got hard lines like this that you won't cross there's a good deal you can do to make life easier for yourself. If you left a company because you weren't happy with them doing weapon-related work then joining a company that you know also does that sort of work and just hoping it never comes up for you to work on is rather.. naive. A blind man on a galloping horse could see it was going to happen sooner or later.

Your current employer may even have factored your previous experience in the domain as an advantage when hiring you - I'm not saying you set out to deceive them but I can see how it might be irksome to find out a year down the line that you aren't quite the employee they thought they were hiring.

Luckily it sounds as though they are a pretty understanding and reasonable bunch, but in the future I think you either need to avoid seeking employment at places that you know do work you find objectionable or being upfront about it. Sure this might affect your ability to get hired some places but no-one ever said that having principles and standing by them didn't come with some personal cost attached.


Compromise your ethics only enough to work on the project short term.

Then, do it again.

Then, do it again.

Keep doing it until the project is completed.

  • 3
    This doesn't answer the question, as the OP has already decided they don't want to work long term on that project.
    – bracco23
    Commented Aug 6, 2020 at 7:51
  • 1
    Actually, I kinda like this answer. It highlights the absurdity of "Working on a weapons project is unethical and against my principals, and I won't do it. Well, okay, I'll do it for a bit - I wouldn't want to inconvenience or delay the weapons project by a sudden refusal on my part. So, where's the missile you want me to work on, boss?"
    – Kevin
    Commented Sep 18, 2020 at 15:33
  • 1
    Thank you @Kevin: Exactly. That's why I didn't delete it even after 11 downvotes. It is a short answer because OP's position is so absurd that any attempt to parse it leads to a long rant that nobody will want to read. Commented Sep 18, 2020 at 17:43

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