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Breach security confidence or take the high road? (page 2)

An ethicist says the answer to IT security job dilemmas may be solved simply by following basic principles we learned in grade school.

Go back to page 1 Reader Questions for The Ethics Guy

Reader Question: So I've got a problem with a co-worker using the automated systems to track my daily schedule, hours and days off. Although this is not illegal and allowed in our company, I find it highly unprofessional and it simply irks me!! I've asked him to stop, but he won't. He is a junior guy, only 1.5 years out of college [and] without children, a wife, a girlfriend, home, animals and, I guess, a real life. How do I handle this?

The Ethics Guy: This is the sort of thing that ought to be mentioned at the interview, and if someone strenuously objects to this level of transparency, then they ought to be allowed to opt out. If this is sprung on them after the fact, then it's a different story because there is a difference between what's legally allowable and what's ethically allowable. And the law generally sets lower standards and tells you what you absolutely cannot do.

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But it doesn't exhort us to bring out the best in ourselves and in others. I think this guy's supervisor would do well to consider how this policy, while in the short run providing useful information, may be damaging to morale and ultimately to the company's flourishing. Perhaps if enough people made a case against this, the supervisor might consider changing this.

As with anything in business, you have to show the other person why it's in their own interest to seriously consider your own position -- why you're not just appealing to their care and compassion for you, but rather answering that age-old question: What's in it for me? If the writer can show that it's actually in the company's best interest to rethink this policy, then you have a chance of changing it. But if this supervisor draws a line in the sand and says, "This is the price of doing business here. If you don't like it you can leave." That may have to be a solution, as sad as that is.

Reader Question: Our company has an ethics program, but if I rat out the members of my team on ethics/work issues, I will be an outcast and most likely not given any decent work again. This will force me to leave the company and find another job. Although this issue doesn't involve life-and-death issues, it does involve the professionalism of work and many additional hours charged to the customer.

The Ethics Guy: There's an important question here: Why would you value the respect of people who are engaged in grossly unethical conduct over your own peace of mind and over your commitment to helping clients and ultimately the company? If this information got out -- and these days it's not hard for people to get access to it -- and people discover you knew about it and did nothing, you will be held accountable because you were in a position to prevent harm to clients and the reputation of the company. You were in a position to stop it and you did nothing. It goes back to what Edmund Burke said: "All that is necessary for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing."

I don't want to suggest that all this is an easy thing to do. This strikes me as more of a psychological problem than an ethical problem. Ethically, I just don't see how you can justify placing camaraderie over professionalism and personal integrity; it just doesn't make sense. But psychologically, of course it's hard. Nobody likes to do that.

Reader Question: I suspect there's an office romance in full bloom between our senior project manager and a developer relatively new to the field. He's asked me to give the developer a position on our team without explaining why or how the developer is qualified for the tasks. I don't think she has enough experience to be of help and could even hurt the project if she screws it up. How do I handle this without getting on my supervisor's bad side and possibly being reassigned? I fear love will conquer all, including my participation on this big, potentially career-building project.

The Ethics Guy: Good decision making, in ethics and elsewhere, begins with getting the facts. I'd like to know if the office has a policy against interoffice dating. If it does not, this situation suggests that it is time to suggest one. The main reason romance at work is a bad idea is that it creates a conflict of interest; it is too easy for one's judgment about what is good for the company [one's central moral obligation as an employee] to be clouded by what is best for the romance.

The ideal solution to any ethical dilemma is the one that enables us to fulfill all of the obligations at stake. In other words, we must ask, "To whom do we have a responsibility?" In the above scenario, the writer has a responsibility to: (a) the company; (b) clients; (c) his/her supervisor; (d) his/her co-workers; and (e) him/herself

The best way to honor all of the writer's responsibilities to these parties is to keep the issue as impersonal as possible. The writer must have evidence as to why s/he believes the developer will not be helpful and might even be harmful. Marshalling this evidence, without making the criticism personal, is the best way to bring up his or her concerns. To ignore the situation would be unethical, because the writer is in a position to be a force for good, or at least to prevent damage to the company's products, services, and most of all, reputation. Failing at least to make a good faith effort to prevent a bad situation from getting worse would make the writer accountable to some degree for the bad consequences that flow from this inappropriate relationship. As Rabbi Hillel put it, "If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?"

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