Your employer has responsibilities: to direct the work you do, pay your wages, and provide a safe place to work. You have responsibilities in return. These include doing the work you were hired to do and being loyal to your employer. But you don’t have to follow instructions that are unreasonable or unlawful. Learn your rights and options if your employer asks you to do something concerning.
You must do the work you were hired to do
As a worker, you have a duty to perform the job you were hired to do. This includes anything in the job description (if there was one). It also includes anything you agreed to in your employment contract.
You must personally perform your job (unless your contract says differently).
Generally, you have a duty to work carefully and to do your job to the best of your ability.
You must be loyal to your employer
As a worker, you owe a general duty of “fidelity and good faith” to your employer. Fidelity (or loyalty, as it’s often called) means you must:
- act in the best interests of the employer
- serve the employer faithfully
- protect the employer’s confidential information
Duty of good faith
Related to the duty of loyalty is a worker’s duty to act in good faith. You must be honest in your dealings with your employer. For example, you must not lie about being sick when, in truth, you are not. Another component of the duty to act in good faith is avoiding conflicts of interest (for example, not competing directly with the employer).
Some workers have fiduciary duties
Workers in senior positions may have fiduciary duties. These are in addition to duties of loyalty and good faith. A fiduciary duty is a legal obligation that one party (the worker) act in the best interests of another (the employer).
Only a small number of workers have fiduciary duties. For example, a director of a company or a top manager are in a fiduciary position because of their decision-making power.
You must carry out instructions, as long as they are reasonable and lawful
“My boss asked me to increase the profit margin in my budget numbers for next year. I thought it was unrealistic — and dishonest, as what she was asking for ran counter to our company’s accounting policies. I shared my concern with my boss. After some back and forth, we were able to land on a more realistic approach.”
– Billy, Port Moody
You must carry out any reasonable and lawful instructions of your employer, within the scope of your employment contract.
But you don’t have to follow unreasonable instructions. It would be unreasonable for your employer to ask you to do something outside your qualifications, abilities, or skill set. For example, it would be unreasonable if your employer asked you to operate a forklift when you’ve never been trained to use one.
As well, you don’t have to do anything unlawful. This includes something that is against the law. It also includes something that is dishonest based on company practice or policy, or something that is dangerous to the safety of workers.
See the “Work out the problem” section below for steps to take if you’re asked to do something unreasonable or unlawful.
If your employer asks you to do something you think is unreasonable or unlawful, ask for clarification. Specifically, ask them to restate the ask and explain their reasoning. If you’re still uneasy, you can decline.
If you don’t meet your responsibilities to your employer
There are risks in not doing what your employer asks you to do. If they feel you haven’t met your responsibilities, an employer might respond in a number of ways. They might:
- Discipline you. They might give you a written warning, or suspend you. They might give you a poor performance evaluation. You can push back against these responses. See “Work out the problem,” below.
- Demote you. They might give you a lesser job. If your employer makes big changes to your job that you don’t accept, you may have a claim for constructive dismissal.
- Fire you. Be aware that an employer can let a worker go at any time, and for any reason, as long as the reason isn't contrary to human rights laws and they give proper notice (or pay instead). To fire you without giving notice, they have to show you committed serious misconduct. If your employer fires you for refusing to do something unlawful — or for reporting unlawful activity — you may have a wrongful dismissal claim. For more on your rights if you’re let go, see our guidance on if you are fired.
Step 1. Get all the facts
Make sure you’re fully aware of what your employer is asking you to do. If you have any doubts, ask them to restate their instruction. If it’s still unclear, try asking more specific questions.
For example, you could say something like:
“I want to understand this a little better. Are you saying you don’t want me to document this expense for the Jones account? Why is that? Wouldn’t that be contrary to our usual practice?”
Once you have the facts, decide on your next move. Resist making a knee-jerk decision. But don’t put off taking action for too long. It may become more difficult to challenge your employer’s instruction.
Step 2. Explain your concerns
If you think your employer is open to discussion, try to reason with them. Explain the concerns you have for yourself, and for them.
If you take issue with your employer’s instruction, it’s a good idea to offer options. Brainstorm an alternative way to handle the situation. Explain that you’re hopeful you can agree on another way to deal with the issue.
Raising concerns with your boss can be stressful. We offer tips for talking with your employer.
If what your employer is asking for strikes you as unethical, it might be. Don’t let yourself be pressured into doing something you aren’t comfortable with. On the flip side, don’t be too aggressive in explaining your concerns. You may end up making the situation worse.
Step 3. Take steps to protect yourself
If you decide to follow your employer’s instructions, you’re still responsible for your actions. You may face liability for any illegal acts you perform on the job. It’s important to take steps to protect yourself.
Although every work situation is different, here are some options to consider:
- Send your employer an email restating their instruction. This may be enough to help them see it’s problematic.
- Talk to a manager or human resources (if your workplace has an HR person).
- Decline to carry out the ask, and explain your reason why.
- Decline to carry out the ask, and resign. Sometimes an instruction is so concerning you may be better off leaving.