How to Speak Up Effectively When You Are Asked to Compromise Your Personal Ethics

Joining me on this week’s episode is Sherry Feldberg, a seasoned healthcare communication professional who is now the principal of Leadership Journey.

She discusses a number of important ethics issues, including:

Why don’t you tell us more about yourself and your career?

Such a big question, right? But if I think about how I would describe myself, I would say that I’m a relationship builder at heart. Someone who is naturally curious about the way that people behave and engage with each other. What motivates those behaviors? I genuinely enjoy connecting with people, not on small talk stuff, but on the big issues that matter. I get super energized when there’s an opportunity to really go deep on issues, ideas, challenges, and see them from lots of different angles.

I’ve always tried my best to try to see the world from a different perspective, especially when I’m interacting with people. You know, really step into their shoes and understand it as best I can from their perspective. And doing so has been the key for me in building trusted and genuine relationships where people can see I care and want to understand where others are coming from.

In terms of my career, I started out in public relations on the agency side and stayed there for many years. I became passionate about healthcare PR and communications, and later transitioned into a corporate communications role at Alkermes, a global pharma company. Just a year and a half ago I made a big pivot and I launched my own consultancy, Leadership Journey where I offer a mix of services focused on leadership, career and team development.

What is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

I would say it was when I was leading a response to a crisis communication situation where a client had a pretty unfavorable story come out. There came a time when I fundamentally disagreed with the strategy my manager wanted to push forward with. It was tied to letting the reporter know after the story came out, how angry and disappointed we were on the way it came out.

There were no inaccuracies in the story, there was no false information to ask for a correction. It was really just to kind of express that sentiment. And it just felt very wrong and not in-line with my values. I’m all about like building relationships with people. I didn’t really see the value in doing that.

It bothered me too that in trying to explain some of my rationale and have a conversation about it, there was really no desire to understand a different point of view. Then to make it even worse, I had a colleague at the time who was privy to the situation and they essentially said, “Well, why don’t you just say you’ll do it and then you won’t do it.”

I was like, “What? I can’t do that.” That’s just so dishonest and not the way that I want to carry myself professionally. I just wouldn’t feel okay about that. So it was not a great situation. And one I really struggled with at the time, both from sort of just that lack of the manager wanting to have a dialogue about something that was clearly bothering me ethically and then hearing that from the colleague just was like pouring salt on the wound.

I want to focus on having a dialogue with your manager when you disagree with them. This is a challenge a lot of people face in their careers. How can you open dialogues when one party may not be that receptive to having a dialogue?

The best advice there is we can pretty much make any point we want to make. It’s the words we use and the way we position things. I think it’s not being highly emotional about it. It’s staying calm and just making it clear that you’d like to have a conversation. First start by asking to have more of an open dialogue so that you can better understand their point of view. Then ask for the opportunity to express my thoughts as they stand now and just see if we can see each other’s points of view and see if perhaps that changes anything in the situation.

Approach it calmly. Don’t say “I can’t believe you’d asked me to do this.” Don’t be accusatory or use a lot of the “yous, yous, yous.” It’s sort of saying like, you just want to talk about it. And most of the time for me, that has worked really well. And I know for others, it’s a good approach. It’s when people either are too afraid to say something, so they don’t say anything, and they feel like they have no choice, or they just use a lot of emotion is when it goes south quickly.

I always tell folks; you can’t start off by saying that’s unethical because people are going to get defensive immediately. What’s your advice when your boss tells you to do something that compromises your own personal ethics?

You have to read the situation. And you have to try to be reasonable too. So, if it’s something like, Hey, the client has news and you know that a reporter has told you that this news is not something that’s going to be of interest to them – that’s where it relies on that relationship you have. Hopefully you’re trusted by both your manager and your client. So, you can simply find the right words to communicate, that you are excited to communicate with this reporter and happy to find like a different angle if this is someone that we really want to engage with. But I know based on previous conversations, this is not an area of interest. Reinforce that you are actually thinking about how can I best improve this relationship that we have.

Let’s come together and figure out a different approach. It’s being solution oriented. Instead of just being like, I can’t do that, it’s against my ethics – take that time to think it through yourself first and see what opportunities could exist. What’s really the goal that the client has? Is it really to get coverage on that particular news or is it that they want at some point, that reporter and that publication to do a story on them? It’s understanding what those goals are, building trusted relationships, being solution oriented. Those are really going to help you when you’re in those moments so that you don’t feel like you have no option, but to do what you know is just going to get you nowhere. And that could hurt you and your client for that matter.

What are you seeing as some of the key communications ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

We’re seeing companies and brands taking a stand on key societal issues like diversity, equity and inclusion, and sustainability issues that are designed to make the world more equitable and a more fair, clean, healthy place. As PR people, we need to be careful because there are going to be times when clients want to push that agenda forward because they feel like that’s what they have to do. And they may not really be taking action, but they want to sort of make it appear as though they’re standing by these issues and advancing them.

I can see that being really ethically challenging for the PR person with clients when there’s not a lot of action going on and the clients really trying to say, “Well, we want to appear as though there is,” that’s tough. That would be a tough situation to be in.

If you find yourself in that situation, it’s again, building those trusted relationships with a client where you can explain why it’s so important to have action, if you’re going to take big stand on certain issues. Explain what good looks like. And if you don’t have all the answers commit that you’ll at least try to collaborate with them, find resources together that can help find those answers for you. I don’t think it’s about always having all the answers, but it’s definitely about asking the right questions. Typically, with issues like this, the better the relationship that you have, the easier it’s going to be to just ask those real questions, and be heard. So that you’re not just taking a directive when you really don’t see that it’s the right way to go.

I’ve been talking about the dangers of woke-washing and that I think too many folks are and are trying to position themselves when there’s no real action behind it. One of the other things I’ve done to help highlight it with executives is show the examples of when it’s been called out and the reputational impact when people have talked the talk, but not walked the walk.

Absolutely. I think that’s really important and it’s a great approach to use evidence and data to help a client understand. You can’t just sort of jump on the wagon today and not take action until later.

You mentioned evidence and data and they are so crucial to healthcare and healthcare communications. What are some of the ethical challenges you encountered in healthcare communications?

There is one you see a lot in the clinical research world. I don’t think it’s as bad as it may have been in the past. It’s putting out a press release of clinical research data and announcing data. The releases lead with like the highlights from their perspective the things that went really well. And then, at the end, there’s a little bit about the things that didn’t go as well and the side effects. It feels as though sort of the positive is being, highlighted much more than the other side of the coin. I think that’s what can lead to distrust in both the media and then the public.

I think that the companies are doing a much better job these days of finding that balanced perspective and being transparent. Because I think they know too that if they’re not, there’s others that are going to be looking at the data outside of the company who will call you out on it.

So you’re really not winning much by trying to de-position some of the negative pieces of what you may have found in the data. It’s to be expected, it’s clinical research. I having the mentality and understanding that it’s not going to be perfect and not striving for it to appear that was. That is really important to building stakeholder trust.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you were given?

You always have a choice.

It doesn’t always feel that way. When you’re in the moment, especially at different points in your career, you might feel like I have no choice. Like my managers told me I have to do this or the client’s asking us to do this.

It’s being able to say, “Well, wait a second, is there another way,” If this doesn’t feel right, what else could I potentially do about that before I just go and do something that doesn’t feel right to me. Just give yourself the space to question and not feel like you’re doing something wrong, you’re not being disloyal. In fact, you may end up being a hero because of it. Because somebody else maybe hasn’t thought through something as well as they should have.

I think that’s actually one of the challenges in PR and comms today. There’s so much noise, there’s so much every day that takes up your mind share. You really have to make an effort to say, “Okay, I need time to take a step back and think about what I’m doing and decide, are there any ethical issues here?”

Just be thoughtful about it. And if there are, find the courage to raise your hand and again, do it in such a way where when people can see that you’re coming from a place of wanting to make sure that the right thing for everyone is being done. People appreciate that. So to your point, early on, it’s not about saying this is unethical and just kind of giving it that label right off the bat, but it’s just engaging in that dialogue is really what it’s all about.

Thinking back over the past year, there’s been so much that’s gone on for so many people, what are the questions and issues that leaders are needing help with today, more than they may have in the past?

One of the themes that I see is, there can be resistance to showing vulnerability as a leader. Even though people know the Harvard Business Review says you don’t look weak and showing some vulnerability will help you connect with people and show you have humanity. Even so, people are still just like, yeah, but what does it makes them think this about me or that about me? And do I really want to go there?

Everyone’s been vulnerable this year. And as awful as it’s been, it’s also been an opportunity to connect on this human level. This has been a year where leaders were able to find strength in that. It was almost like they were forced into being vulnerable because everybody really was, and it was hard to hide it when everyone can see into your home literally and figuratively.

I think that’s probably the biggest takeaway – we’re all people first and we share that in common. Make sure we’re not forgetting that along the way and be comfortable leaning into it. There’s a balance, though. I don’t think people respond well when a leader goes way too far and shares too much personally, that’s going on. But I think it can show up in small ways, even unrelated to your personal life.

If you’re trying to navigate what we’re doing from a COVID policy perspective, and you’re really torn up about an issue. I think opening up to the team and saying, “I can see both sides of this. What do you guys think? I really want your perspective.” I think that takes a more seasoned leader to be able to recognize the value of opening it up. It doesn’t mean that you’re weak because you didn’t have the answer. It’s your job to kind of drive that dialogue to make sure that the best solutions and ideas are surfaced and come to the table. I think having that kind of a mindset, being more open, being comfortable, being vulnerable really, is been a big theme. And those who have embraced that more have really gained from it.

Check out the full interview, with bonus content, here


Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
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Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the general manager of C+C's Boston office. C+C is a communications agency all about the good and purpose-driven brands. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA, drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of


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