I work at a paperless type of IT shop. All the documents and records are maintained electronically. I am the guy in charge of the databases holding employee records. These include time-sheets, task distributions, ratings and everything except the money.

My boss wants me to "fix" the records for a big external audit that's coming up - if this isn't done, we'll probably fail the audit and lose the company. The top management might want the same or might've even asked to get it done.

The command has come verbally in a hush-hush manner. There is no mail.

I have a feeling that this is unethical and potentially illegal. Not doing this will surely cost me my job. Then they will get some other guy do the task.

I am totally prepared to leave, but am I overreacting?

  • How can I figure out if what I have been asked to do is illegal?
  • How can I protect myself if I'm forced to take this action?
  • 7
    This was discussed in depth over on Security StackExchange
    – JMK
    Apr 30, 2014 at 18:35
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    The audit logs will show when files or records were altered. If you're okay with your name being attached to that sort of ethical decision, then that's a decision you have to make. Apr 30, 2014 at 18:44
  • 3
    I updated your question to make it more inline with out standards here. Hope this helps Apr 30, 2014 at 22:00
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    Can you consider who will be harmed by these changes you're being asked to make? Will a customer be defrauded? Will an employee lose retirement money? Will outside investors be falsely induced to put more money into the company?
    – O. Jones
    Apr 30, 2014 at 23:08
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    See a lawyer and start job searching asap. It's obviously a terrible company if either you have to falsify records to cheat an audit or the company will probably go under. I think your safest route is to resign, since the company is in such a poor state anyways, you won't be losing much even it it turns out it's not a legal issue.
    – Kai
    Sep 14, 2015 at 18:07

3 Answers 3


Update: the question was modified to determine how to tell if the request is legal, and how to protect oneself. The advice below was for if the request is obviously illegal. Here is one way to determine if the action is legal and to protect oneself at the some time, although it isn't foolproof:

  • Ask your boss for written directions on what needs to be done and why. If the boss gives it to you without any hesitation, then the boss doesn't see anything wrong it with, nor does he consider there any danger to himself by asking you to do it.
  • If the boss refuses to give you anything in writing, then consider the original advice:

It is unethical, it could be illegal, and it will certainly compromise your integrity. It's also possible that even with the fix that the audit will find the problem, and evidence of trying to cover it up. In that case, you will be the first offered as guilty, from all of those above you.

But, you're also in a situation where if you don't do it, you lose your job. You have to consider the pros and cons, and some of those will be weighted by how important you consider your own integrity, and how precarious your life will be without this job. Be sure to weigh in the possibility that you lose your job, even if you do it. Consider also the long term effects on yourself, not just the short term.

I would consider this serious enough to walk away from, and let someone else do it, and that would not be an overreaction. (Or get the written instructions, as in the question mentioned in the comments.) However, that is just an opinion of one person, who isn't you.

We often hit ethical decisions (usually without such dire consequences), and sometimes we're in a position to fight the situation and sometimes we are not. You have to determine if you are in a position where you can fight it.

  • 1
    To be honest, the updated questions are off-topic here since that's a legal matter and the only real advice we can give is "find a lawyer". (+1 for both the original answer and the update though).
    – Lilienthal
    Sep 14, 2015 at 17:52

How can I figure out if what I have been asked to do is illegal?

Consult a local attorney with experience in your domain.

How can I protect myself if I'm forced to take this action?

Tread carefully here if you suspect this is illegal.

First, let's be clear about this - you aren't being forced to take this action. You aren't a slave. You aren't a robot. You always have the alternative of refusing, perhaps at the cost of your job.

As far as protecting yourself - that's a legal attribute that depends almost exclusively on the specific locale, and the specifics of the context.

In some countries and companies, you could blow the whistle and be protected legally. In others, you could not.

In some countries, depending on the position you hold in the company, you could be personally liable for misrepresenting some company records. In other countries, or holding other positions, you could not.

In some contexts saying "They forced me to do this illegal activity" might be a reasonable defense if charged with a crime. In other contexts, it would not.

If you need to know for sure, consult a good attorney. Anything else is pure speculation.


The best suggestion I have for you is the following:

  1. Try and get a paper trail with the request.
  2. Determine if you think doing it is likely to be either illegal or not. If illegal you should immediately get legal advice. This may prove in valuable in the future.
  3. Make a decision as whether you're doing it or not and for what reasons.
  4. Face the consequences of doing it or not.

If you can't get anything in writing (including proper emails). then you need to immediately move to step two and seek legal advice, even if it's just to determine if the work is likely to land you with negative consequences.

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