Consulting 101 Series: How to Handle Unethical Client Requests

What should you do when your client or boss asks you to do something that’s illegal or unethical? Here’s what to do and why.

Have you ever been asked by an employer or project client to do something that seems odd or possibly even illegal? I have. And I’ve worked with project managers and technical support personnel who have as well. As consultants and professionals, we need to maintain the highest level of integrity as we are serving our clients and our employers. That doesn’t always mean just going along with whatever they ask of us. Sometimes it means doing just the opposite…running away.

In the vein of project management and consulting best practices, I’d like to discuss how to handle those situations where the project, the customer, the request, or the business opportunity seems wrong or just too good to be true. Think twice before moving forward with your head down.

If it smells sour, it is sour. This is an easy one, but temptation can be hard to ignore. If the milk smells wrong, no matter how bad you want to drink it the taste will still be horrible. Don’t do it. You can’t take something bad and make it good. A bad project client is a bad project client. A hiring organization that seems like they may be doing something criminal probably is doing something criminal. Trust your gut. You could be wrong. But who’s going to help you if you aren’t wrong yet you proceed?

If you see warning signs like clients asking you to fill out liability documents that you’ve never had to fill out before, or asking you for financial information that doesn’t seem to fit the purpose or asking you to do something on their behalf that makes you want to run 100 mph in the other direction, don’t go through with it. For every bad client or bad project, there are 100 more out there that are good. It’s not worth the career and reputation risk – no matter what the price.

If you are doing wrong, know that you will get caught. What percent of wrongdoers do you really think evade the long arm of the law? They may get away with something for a while, but most eventually pay the price. I would guess that number to be 95-98%. Do you think you’re smart enough and stealthy enough and slimy enough to find yourself living the high life (and on the run forever) in that top 2-5%? Probably not. And that price you will end up paying is never going to get your reputation back, your old life back, and your felony conviction fully (and I’m mean FULLY) erased. You will suffer, your career or business will tank, and most of all your family will suffer.

Be selfish – protect your career and family. If your employer asks you to do something for a project that you are concerned may be illegal, pause. Likewise, if you are acting as an employee or consultant and a project client asks you to do something that seems to contradict good, legal practices for doing business, pause. Consider the situation and consider the consequences. Be selfish – think about what it might do to your family.

I know an individual who recently went to jail for a number of years for continuing business with and for an organization conducting illegal and fraudulent practices. It doesn’t matter whether he knowingly did this or was just duped, that’s not my area to judge. The bottom line is this – his family has been put in peril and he’s locked away for months or possibly years. Put yourself in that position. You don’t want to go there.


When we are consulting for our clients, we have a responsibility to act to the best of our ability on their behalf. We want their repeat business and that often happens if we make them happy. But making them happy, satisfied customers should not come at the price of our consulting practice, our employment, our family or our freedom. Be aware of every next step you take. People are sometimes thinking of their own monetary gain and they don’t care who or what they take down with them. It could be you and your project management career or consulting practice. Be aware.

Disclaimer: The content on this page is for information purposes only and does not constitute legal, tax, or accounting advice. If you have specific questions about any of these topics, seek the counsel of a licensed professional.

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