Responsibilities of a Low Level Employee Re Integrity of Orders Received

Suppose you’re a secretary or some other low level employee in a company. One of your responsibilities is filling out forms (paper or online) based on information provided to you by higher ups. You have a strong suspicion that some of the information is not strictly accurate. You’re not 100% sure of this. In addition, if it is inaccurate, you’re not completely sure of the implications. It’s possible that the info is not technically accurate but is accurate in a broader sense, in that sometimes paperwork is filled out inaccurately but is honest in spirit. But sometimes inaccurate paperwork is actually being used for dishonest purposes. You don’t know which, as you don’t have a lot of familiarity with the industry, if any.

Question is, how much do you have to dig? Can you just say “my job is to put down what I’m told and not to attest to its accuracy” or do you have to confirm to yourself that what you’re doing is honest? Does it depend on whether the accuracy is something that you would be expected to know something about or whether it’s something that you just happen to have reason to suspect?

[This is triggered by an actual situation involving someone I know. She works in a real estate agency in a secretarial/office role. She needed to fill in information on some form stating who were the agents on the deal. The agent instructed her to fill in another agent in the office as the buyer’s agent. She (the secretary) has been copied on various emails over the course of the deal, and based on these she doesn’t think the other agent was actually involved in the deal. She suspects that under the terms of the contract the total commission paid will be higher if there are two agents involved than if one agent does the whole deal, and this agent was trying to increase the commission. But she doesn’t know this, and the question is whether she is required to dig in and make waves or can she just follow orders in ignorance.

I’m filling in the details for illustrative purposes, in case they help flesh out the question, but my question is a broader one and not limited to this specific situation.]

She needs to pass the buck upwards. It’s not her role to place blame or figure out exactly what’s going on but she needs to inform someone above her of her observations to clear herself if it ever comes up again.
“Did you have any suspicions something may not be kosher?”
“Yes, it seemed suspect.”
“Did you do anything or tell anyone about it?”
“Ummm, no.”
Does not look good on her.
“Did you have any suspicions something may not be kosher?”
“Yes, it seemed suspect.”
“Did you do anything or tell anyone about it?”
“I told our supervisor about it.”
Now it’s completely out of her hands and she’s in the clear. It’s not her job to follow up on it but it is her responsibility to report it.

Based upon the theory of your first paragraph, I would say to do the job and that’s your total responsibility. However, when you put the specifics into the equation, the person is more functionally involved, knows critical information, and has the responsibility to get clarity from the supervisor before proceeding. If the boss says to “Put in X” then you put in X unless there is a legal or ethical concern where you should go public as a whistle blower or quit on ethical grounds.

Well… I once sent a note to my boss’s boss stating that something I had been asked to do (coming from her own boss) didn’t look kosher, explaining why (I didn’t have the competences to be 100% sure, but was pretty much 99.5 % sure) and asking for an order in written form.

I was (rightly) betting that they wouldn’t dare to use reprisals given that the whole thing smelled fishy (and wouldn’t write the order down, either).

Now, I generally wouldn’t advise to use such a tactic. It’s really highly dependant on the specific situation, your own position, the persons involved, etc…
Plus, I know that eventually someone else agreed to do it, so it was on the overall pretty pointless, except for my not being involved.

I am a legal assistant and I have no problem with asking more questions if something doesn’t seem right. Perhaps working in the legal field I am more conscientious about what I put my name to or something, but I always confirm things I’m uneasy about or think are possible wrong (via e-mail so it’s in writing, if possible).

My attorney appreciates this because although he’s not dishonest, he is young and has made honest mistakes on documents and because I’ve called his attention to these mistakes, I’ve saved his ass a time or two. It’s good for me too because he knows that I won’t be a party to anything that I feel is unethical or just flat wrong, should he ever be tempted to involve me in such.

Depends how much your friend likes her job. If she intends to keep it, she shouldn’t dig - not only because of potential retaliation but also because if she finds something and continues to work there it makes her a witting accomplice in the act rather than a mere pawn who was just following orders. The latter tend to get a lot more sympathy in court - plausible deniability and all that.

If it’s a large operation that has its own legal department, she needs to forward this onto them and ask them if it’s okay. I work for quite a large company and I would be protected from retaliation by asking permission in this manner. And the agent might be fired.

If it’s a smaller operation, she needs to:
Hit reply to the email.
Copy in her own supervisor, and the agent’s supervisor, and bcc her own personal email.
Ask for permission to do what she’s being asked. Make it seem casual. Just be like, “I don’t have the authority to do what $agent asked me to, and I’m looking to get the go-ahead from one of you guys. Thanks! :)” (optionally, she can first reply to the agent and say she needs to get the go-ahead from his supervisor to do it, since it’s a deviation from procedure and she doesn’t have the authority required to make that change. keep everything in writing)
Bcc any replies to her personal email and save them.

If the higher-up gives permission, then do it without a doubt. But keep the paper trail. This is the kind of fraud that the IRS may be very interested in. In no circumstances should she do it without alerting someone with more authority than herself and the agent. It would be professionally, ethically, and livelihood-ly smarter to quit than to do this.

Back in 2004, I was working as a loan processor at a mortgage company. Well, actually I was temping and they had my title as “receptionist” because you have to be qualified to be a loan processor. But that was the work I was doing.

Basically it consisted of putting together packages of documents for people who were applying for mortgages, to send to the underwriters for approval. The loan officers (my bosses) would often tell me to get rid of documents that showed applicants had credit card debt, and add “assets” like jetskis and pool tables to pad people’s net worth.

I don’t think it’s any secret what this kind of mortgage chicanery led to.

So, if dishonesty bothers you, my advice would be to stay away from anything related to the real estate “industry”.


I work for a department head at a college…most of the errors are legitimate and my boss knows he can count on me to catch them and bring them to his attention for correction or authorization. Likewise, he knows I’m not going to cover any asses who are seeking to circumvent policy or hang me out to dry.

Question it and document it.

I once “questioned” a request that I had been given out of genuine ethical concern. Instead of management being sympathetic and working to investigate and assure me that I was following applicable company policies and laws, and congratulating me for standing for integrity, I was brought before a Management Inquisition and “how dare you”'d for a while. They told me that I was totally out of line in questioning any direction to perform a task, and that I was paid to do, not to question.

I no longer work for that company.