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I work in an IT / web development team for a retailer. We were a larger team but have been downsized 50% due to staff leaving recently and not being able to find replacements. We did have a manager filtering info from the CEO to us and now we deal with the CEO more directly. (250 ish staff total)

Recently he told us that we need to stop asking questions and do exactly as he says no matter what, even if we foresee a problem then it will be his problem to own. There have been times when he wanted to do things like making customer details (emails and phone numbers) etc public-facing just for one example of requests we have advised against.

I do understand he is the CEO (who also owns the company) and at the end of the day what he says needs to be done, but I don't see a reason why he can't tell us what he wants to achieve and then we can think of a way to achieve his goals. Versus him telling us what he wants us to code exactly whether it will work or not. Is this normal?

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    Why did the company lose 50% of its staff? – WorkingHard_Guy Sep 9 at 10:45
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    I’m wondering, could there be a correlation between “downsized 50% due to people leaving” and “he told us we need to stop asking questions and do exactly as he says no matter what”? – Jivan Sep 9 at 13:58
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    Is the CEO consistent about this claim state of affairs? E.g., re: "it will be his problem to own" -- is there evidence of cases where he actually takes responsibility like that, or does he instead blame others any time there is a screwup? This question has the flavor of a one-time flare up where something was said in anger, and I would not trust such to be actually the case. Is the CEO consistent like this, or unpredictably chaotic? youtu.be/5VMX6zCXHWA – Daniel R. Collins Sep 9 at 21:38
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    I once had the President of the company shout "Do it or I'll find someone who will!" at me in a full company meeting. He was a good guy and you could tell from his face he regretted it almost immediately. He was just really frustrated by the situation we were in. Was this that kind of outburst, or more of a policy statement? – T.J. Crowder Sep 10 at 8:05
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    (FWIW: I didn't do the thing. As soon as the meeting was over I went into his office, closed the door, and we had a rational discussion where I empathized with -- and joined in -- his frustration and explained what we needed to do. We did that, and all ended well. Not that I wasn't a lot nervous walking into that office...) – T.J. Crowder Sep 10 at 8:10

10 Answers 10

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If you believe it is illegal, you tell the CEO, and you are not going to do it unless the CEO tells you in writing that it is legal. Or if it happens, you go to a lawyer and ask what you need to do to make sure any legal trouble isn't your problem.

If you think it's a bad idea and will cost the company money, reputation or in other ways, you tell the CEO in writing and keep a copy for yourself. You will need it when the CEO realises that he was stupid and wants to blame you.

If you think it's a bad idea because there are better uses of your time, you just write down what you have been told, no need to tell the CEO, just in case he realises you wasted your time and blames you.

And lastly, if you think your job or your salary are unsafe because he drives the company into the ground, you look for a position elsewhere. And when you have signed a legally binding contract for a new and better job, you give notice and leave at the end of your notice.

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Is this normal?

It's unusual. But of course it depends on the personality of the company owner.

But what does it matter if it's "normal" or "abnormal"? The owner of the company gets to decide how the company works - normal or not.

Now you get to decide if you want to work that way, or find a new company (with a new owner).

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    The owner of the company does not get to decide how people work, they have to follow the law, and employees risk trouble if they blindly do what they're told. Exposing customer information as described is illegal in a lot of countries, and following what he says could end up causing the developers trouble. – ThomasRedstone Sep 9 at 22:47
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    It matters if it is normal or not. If it is not normal, op can look for other opportunities with much more confidence. If it is normal, he may consider staying since things will likely be the same. – Koray Tugay Sep 10 at 0:42
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    Depending on country regulations, make sure to not put yourself in legal trouble – David Sep 10 at 6:35
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    The owner of the company does not get to decide if laws apply to him or not. Making customer details public is in most countries guaranteed to put you into legal trouble, and I'd want no part of it. – ChatterOne Sep 10 at 6:47
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    @Thomas Generally as a developer you're not responsible or competent to decide what violates laws or not - that's a very hairy avenue to get into. Getting a non-obvious illegal request from your manager means you should do it. E.g. if you violate the GDPR the company will be fined, not some engineer who implemented it under instructions from their boss. For a real example, see the VW scandal and the criminal cases for violating the clean air act - I'm not aware of any non-executive in that case getting a criminally investigated or fined. – Voo Sep 10 at 10:33
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No, it's not normal, and it should be a huge red flag to you.

even if we foresee a problem then it will be his problem to own

He's being disingenuous. If you foresee a problem and don't raise it, then you will be the one thrown under the bus when it actually blows up. If you foresee a problem and do raise it, you'll face his wrath. Not a good choice, but covering your back is definitely the better of the two.

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No, it's not normal, but you are still obligated to follow this policy.

The company pays you to do what they tell you to do. That's what your work contract says. Well managed companies will tell you to do whatever is in the best interest of the company and speak up when you believe they are making a mistake. But unfortunately not all companies are well managed. So when the company owner tells you to "stop asking questions and do exactly as he says no matter what", then that's what you are being paid to do. Personally I would not want to work in such a company. I would also be worried if a company which still operates under such an antiquated authoritarian mindset has much of a future in the world of the 21st century. But whether or not you want to put up with this company philosophy is your personal decision.

One exception would be if you are asked to do something which you believe would break the law. (you did not say where your company is situated and IANAL, but publishing contact information of customers might be an example of something which could be illegal in a lot of jurisdictions). In that case you should refuse in order to protect yourself or at least insist on a written confirmation that your concerns were noted. If you are unsure about whether or not an instruction is legal, then you might want to consult a lawyer. You should also make sure that you received the instruction in writing and secure that evidence in a way where the company is unable to delete it (which means outside of your email inbox). Just in case the whole thing blows up and the company tries to defend itself by inventing a narrative where you acted on your own accord.

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I'm going to buck the trend. Yes - he is your employer, and you have effectively agreed legally to perform tasks which are assigned you and are legal.

However - you are also a person, with your own moral understandings. If any manager in any capacity asks you to do something which you feel is not right, you do have the right to push back and inform them that you will not do it, and ask if you might fulfill the business objective another way.

They, of course, have the right to terminate your employment in response. Most answers here say to do whatever is asked of you if it's legal. The rest suggest you should just leave. I suggest a middle ground - riskier than either, as you could end up unemployed, but it's worked so far for me.

I've found that many people who push hard respect (though they don't like it) when people push back. If the company is really in dire need of workers in your field, you have a fairly strong negotiating position. You should make every reasonable effort to keep the company afloat, and your CEO has should have a better understanding of what's needed to make that happen. However, you, and nobody else, are ultimately responsible to your own conscience.

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    Good Answer. Legally you are employed by the company, not an individual manger and you have a certain responsibility to try try to save the company from harm. One could also argue that you are hired as an expert in your field and if there are risks only you can see you are not fulfilling your professional duties if your fail to communicate them. – Daniel Sep 10 at 9:49
  • "I've found that many people who push hard respect (though they don't like it) when people push back." The boss literally said they do not want this: "Stop asking questions." – Michael Sep 10 at 21:01
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I'm seeing a lot of duplicate advice and questionable advice from several answers here. If you are told to do something and you don't want to then don't. There are consequences to the choices you make, of course. Could you be terminated if you don't do what the boss wants you to do? Of course. But you could also be terminated if you do do what the boss wants you to do. (I'm assuming you're hired at-will.)

I do find myself in a position at times against what my boss wants me to do. I do get things done in the way he wishes sometimes, but other times I do find ways to do it my way. You have to balance it. Give 'im just enough of what he wants; you do the rest.

Please note that if you do something illegal, it doesn't matter if someone else told you to do it. You are still breaking the law. And, yes, you, and you alone, can be held accountable for that.

Take this story I heard recently: At an airplane manufacturing plant, certain components need to be X-rayed to verify their quality. The components are sent on a conveyor belt, and the technician checks the X-ray at his workstation and clicks the button that says Accept or Reject. One particular incident resulted in airplane crashes. After several months of investigation, they discovered the culprit, and they had recorded video. This technician was eating his snacks at the X-ray terminal and watching his phone. While distracted, he was simply pressing the Accept button for every single one of the components. He was legally held accountable (i.e. arrested).

At the same time, it is important not to get your feelings mixed up in legalities. You may feel that exposing your customer's data to the public is illegal, but I'm not aware of any US law that states that. There may be something in Europe. In the US, like it or not, it's the company's data, not the customer's. Now, if that data included credit card information, then that might be an issue with PCC compliance, but I'm not sure how law enforcement can get involved in that. You'd have to look into that. As others stated, go seek advice from a lawyer if you're worried.

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    Just curious, do you have a citation for the X-ray technician story? – ron rothman Sep 10 at 0:36
  • Whenever you share your data you agree to a policy of use. Admittedly pretty much nobody reads that, but if you agree and in there they say they'll share it, you can't really complain. If they say it's only for them and commercial partners but then make the data public anyway, get ready for the lawsuit. – ChatterOne Sep 10 at 7:02
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    That aircraft technician was solely responsible for the problem, but in OP's case, should be blame be on the programmer who wrote code that allowed data to go public, testers who approved it, the IT guy who installed the code on the live web server, or the CEO who wrote the specification? – Robin Bennett Sep 10 at 8:43
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    @RobinBennett In the case of Volkswagon's emissions scandal charges were filed against quite a few employees and executives. It's still going on now.. Nothing stops the authorities from filing charges against everyone involved. People who hold engineering certifications with legal weight behind their signature are especially likely to be held accountable. For an engineer, proceeding after bringing up an issue actually increases the severity of the offense as it is proof they knew they were acting in bad faith. – Booga Roo Sep 10 at 11:06
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    @ronrothman, no, I wish I did. Our quality control consultant told us the story during a training session recently. – Bobort Sep 10 at 16:35
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Personnaly I would do as he says (what is legal) and still voice concerns and keep a log.

If his ideas fail he will probably blame you and you will have a log. This will either make him angry and eventually fire you or he will realise that he isn't fit for this.

Either way if he wants to drive his company to the ground let him do so. In the meantime look for a better manager organisation to work for.

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    This CEO isn't going to have that realization. It'll be everyone's fault but his. – alroc Sep 9 at 12:04
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Short answer: He's your boss, he's paying you, you do what he says even if you think it's a bad idea.

Longer answer: If you feel the need to protect yourself (e.g. you're being instructed to do something that you feel is illegal), take appropriate measures: get confirmations in writing and save them, voice-record conversations on these topics (if voice recording is legal; TBH I'd voice record anyway and just not tell anyone about the recordings until it's relevant, you can always reverse-engineer "meeting notes" or whatever out of a voice recording if instructed to do so by a lawyer), etc. The CEO absolutely won't take responsibility when the s*** hits the fan so don't trust that nonsense.

But then, do what you're told. If you're told to make customer email addresses and phone numbers public, then warn the CEO about the concerns you have, CYA as above, and then make them public. That's what you're being paid to do, so do it. Do it, or find another job.

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    If you do something illegal or unethical because you were told to by your boss, logs and receipts won't save your reputation. The risks are much greater than the rewards. Better to find a company with integrity. – mjjf Sep 10 at 0:12
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It's unusual to be so upfront with that aggressive sentiment; however, it's not unusual for the CEO or owner to think that way.

I would recommend documenting whatever you can when questionable situations like this arise.

People like this rarely change; if you cannot work in this manner, I'd suggest looking for a new job.

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  • In the immortal words of Jenny: "RUN Forest RUN"! – boatcoder Sep 10 at 21:05
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That’s not normal but sadly, it’s also not uncommon.

There’s no reason he can't tell you what he wants and ask you to think of a way to achieve his goals, and do you see that has almost nothing to do with the gist of your Question?

No complaint and since you brought it up, this is the first time I’ve ever heard “downsized” used to describe people leaving, rather than being pushed out. If your “250-ish staff total” applies to the whole organisation, how is that relevant to your department? If that describes your department alone, the idea that any one person could realistically keep track of, let alone control 250 people is worse than ridiculous.

If he says any problem is his to own, fine… follow his instructions and find a suitable variant of “I’m following your instructions and please note, that means (blah la lah)…” and be sure there is a paper trail recording your warnings.

Quite separately, it’s not clear what “making customer details… public-facing” means but making details visible other than on a need-to-know basis would clearly be illegal here in the UK, and throughout the EU… I have no knowledge of data-protection or privacy laws elsewhere, but I doubt they’re much different. If that crops up, you need to find a way of saying “Following your instructions will mean breaking the law. How are you going to indemnify me?”

You need to understand that because he’s the CEO and owns the company doesn’t at all mean what he says needs to be done… even if arguing about it means you need to quit your job and then sue for constructive dismissal. Please look at how many Nazi war criminals tried the bogus defence “I was just following orders…”

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