Ethics, Moral Dilemmas, and Tough Decisions

Please read the case and answer 3 questions at the end:

 

What Bryan found on an executive’s computer six years ago still weighs heavily on his mind. He’s particularly troubled that the man he discovered using a company PC to view pornography of Asian women and of children was subsequently promoted and moved to China to run a manufacturing plant. “To this day, I regret not taking that stuff to the FBI.” It happened when Bryan, who asked that his last name not be published, was IT director at the U.S. division of a $500 million multinational corporation based in Germany.

The company’s Internet usage policy, which Bryan helped develop with input from senior management, prohibited the use of company computers to access pornographic or adult-content Web sites. One of Bryan’s duties was to use products from SurfControl PLC to monitor employee Web surfing and to report any violations to management. Bryan knew that the executive, who was a level above him in another department, was popular within both the U.S. division and the German parent. Yet when the tools turned up dozens of pornographic Web sites visited by the executive’s computer, Bryan followed the policy. “That’s what it’s there for. I wasn’t going to get into trouble for following the policy,” he reasoned. Bryan’s case is a good example of the ethical dilemmas that IT workers may encounter on the job. IT employees have privileged access to digital information, both personal and professional, throughout the company, and they have the echnical prowess to manipulate that information. That gives them both the power and responsibility to monitor and report employees who break company rules. IT professionals may also uncover evidence that a coworker is, say, embezzling funds, or they could be tempted to peek at private salary information or personal e-mails. There’s little guidance, however, on what to do in these uncomfortable situations.

In the case of the porn-viewing executive, Bryan didn’t get into trouble, but neither did the executive, who came up with “a pretty outlandish explanation” that the company accepted, Bryan says. He considered going to the FBI, but the Internet bubble had just burst and jobs were hard to come by. “It was a tough choice,” Bryan says. “But I had a family to feed.” Perhaps it would ease Bryan’s conscience to know that he did just what labor attorney Linn Hynds, a senior partner at Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, would have advised in his case. “Let the company handle it,” she says. “Make sure you report violations to the right person in your company, and show them the evidence. After that, leave it to the people who are supposed to be making that decision.” Ideally, corporate policy takes over where the law stops, governing workplace ethics to clear up gray areas and remove personal judgment from the equation as much as possible. “If you don’t set out your policy and your guidelines, if you don’t make sure that people know what they are and understand them, you’re in no position to hold workers accountable,” says John Reece, a former chief information officer at the Internal Revenue Service and Time Warner Inc.

Having clear ethical guidelines also lets employees off the hook emotionally if the person they discover breaking the policy is a friend, someone who reports to them directly, or a supervisor, says Reece, who is now head of consultancy at John C. Reece and Associates LLC. Organizations that have policies in place often focus on areas where they had trouble in the past or emphasize whatever they are most worried about. When Reece was at the IRS, for example, the biggest emphasis was on protecting the confidentiality of taxpayer information.

At the U.S. Department of Defense, policies usually emphasize procurement rules, notes Stephen Northcutt, president of the SANS Technology Institute and author of IT Ethics Handbook: Right and Wrong for IT Professionals.

Adding to the complexity, an organization that depends on highly skilled workers might be more lenient. When Northcutt worked in IT security at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Virginia, it was a rarefied atmosphere of highly sought-after PhDs. “I was told pretty clearly that if I made a whole lot of PhDs very unhappy so that they left, the organization wouldn’t need me anymore,” says Northcutt. Of course, that wasn’t written in any policy manual, so Northcutt had to read between the lines. “The way I interpreted it was: Child pornography, turn that in,” he says. “But if the leading mathematician wants to download some pictures of naked girls, they didn’t want to hear from me.” Northcutt says that he did find child porn on two occasions and that both events led to prosecution. As for other offensive photos that he encountered, Northcutt pointed out to his superiors that there might be a legal liability, citing a Supreme Court decision that found that similar pictures at a military installation indicated a pervasive atmosphere of sexual harassment. That did the trick. “Once they saw that law was involved, they were more willing to change culture and policy,” Northcutt says.

When policies aren’t clear, ethical decisions are left to the judgment of IT employees, which varies by person and the particular circumstances. For example, Gary, a director of technology at a nonprofit organization in the Midwest, flat-out refused when the assistant chief executive officer wanted to use a mailing list that a new employee had stolen from her former employer. Yet Gary, who asked that his last name not be used, didn’t stop his boss from installing unlicensed software on PCs for a short time, although he refused to do it himself. “The question is, how much was it really going to hurt anybody? We were still going to have 99.5 percent compliant software. I was OK with that.” He says he uninstalled it, with his boss’s approval, as soon as he could, which was about a week later. Northcutt argues that the IT profession should have two things that professions such as law or accounting have had for years: a code of ethics and standards of practice. That way, when company policy is nonexistent or unclear, IT professionals still have standards to follow.

That might be useful for Tim, a systems administrator who works at a Fortune 500 agricultural business. When Tim, who asked that his last name not be published, happened across an unencrypted spreadsheet of salary information on a manager’s PC, he copied it. He didn’t share the information with anyone or use it to his advantage. It was an impulsive act, he admits, that stemmed from frustration with his employer. “I didn’t take it for nefarious reasons; I just took it to prove that I could,” he says. Tim’s actions point to a disturbing trend: IT workers are justifying their ethically questionable behavior. That path can end in criminal activity, says fraud investigator Chuck Martell. “We started seeing a few cases about seven or eight years ago,” says Martell, managing director of investigative services at Veritas Global LLC, a security firm in Southfield, Michigan. “Now we’re investigating a tremendous amount of them.”

Whole Foods Market Chairman and CEO John Mackey spent years earning a positive reputation as a corporate leader who was not afraid to take a stand on ethics issues.

Before other companies figured out that it pays to be environmentally friendly, Whole Foods led by setting standards for humane animal treatment. In 2006, Mackey took the bold step of reducing his own annual salary to one dollar,pledging money instead for an emergency fund for his staff. Not shy about expressing his views, Mackey challenged leading thinkers, like Nobel Prize–inner Milton Friedman, on business ethics issues. Like many leaders, Mackey seemed to relish the public spotlight.

On July 20, 2007, however, Mackey got more than he bargained for in terms of publicity.The Wall Street Journal reported that Mackey had long used the pseudonym “Rahodeb”to make postings in Yahoo Finance forums that flattered his own company and leveled criticisms against the competition. Serious financial and possibly legal repercussions continue to unfold from this incident, and the final consequences may not be known for some time.

Amid the furor that followed this disclosure of Mackey’s secret online alias, it is vital that we not lose sight of the critical issues it raises about ethics and leadership in a rapidly evolving business world. There is no question that the current climate has prompted many more companies to tackle ethics issues.

By now, “business ethics” is an established part of doing business, not just in the United States, but also increasingly around the world. People no longer joke that “business ethics is an oxymoron,” as society has come not merely to expect,but to demand, that business conduct itself according to basic rules of ethics and integrity. Business will always need to pay attention to ethics and leadership, but these lessons are continually challenged by new developments, including technological advances that promote new kinds of communication online. Business leaders cannot afford to overlook these challenges, as even a single misstep can be enough to undo a reputation for ethical leadership.

 

QUESTIONS:

1.Companies are developing ethical policies and guidelines for legal reasons, but also to clarify what is acceptable and what is not. Do you think any of the issues raised in the case required clarification? Would you take exception to any of them being classified as inappropriate behavior?Why do you think these things happen anyway?

2.In the first example (Bryan’s), it is apparent that he did not believe justice had been ultimately served by the decision his company made. Should he have taken the issue to the authorities? Or was it enough that he reported the problem through the proper channels and let the organization handle it, as was the recommendation of Linn Hynds? Provide a rationale for the position you are willing to take on this matter.

3.In the case, Gary chose not to stop his boss from installing unlicensed software, although he refused to do it himself. If installing unlicensed software is wrong, is there any difference between refusing to do it versus not stopping somebody else?

Do you buy his argument that it was not really going to hurt anybody? Why or why not?

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