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Breach security confidence or take the high road?

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

Say you have this friend who finally lands a job interview at a highly desired company. Midway through the conversation, the security manager asks this friend for details on his present employment, including specific projects he's currently working on. He'd love to talk about them, because it would improve his chances of landing the position,

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but there's just one problem: He'd also be breaching his current company's confidence.

What to do?

The answer may be simpler than you think, at least if you're seeking advice from ethicist Bruce Weinstein, whose syndicated column and weekly appearances on cable news outlets have made him the go-to guy for sticky situations at work. His newest book, Life Principles: Feeling Good by Doing Good, focuses on five principles common to all religious traditions and civilized societies. Security professionals, who encounter unique dilemmas based on their exceptional access to enterprise networks and data, may benefit from remembering them.

Do no harm. Though this maxim normally is associated with the healthcare industry, Weinstein says it applies to all professions. "Whatever field we're in, the point of what we do is to make things better, and every religious tradition calls upon us to do that," he said. For security, it's making sure your decisions do not damage your company's networks or reputation needlessly.

Make things better. It's easy to get caught up in what you can do to improve yourself, but approaching ideas and projects more altruistically will actually benefit you more in the end. By making your business a better place for employees, business partners and customers, you will rise in reputation.

Respect others. This one is especially important in the secret world of security, which thrives on protecting data integrity and privacy and promoting trust within an organization. One of the ways we show respect for others is by protecting confidentiality. "You show respect by telling people the truth and keeping your promises and your word," Weinstein said.

Be fair. This involves being just in your decisions and working within the rules of your company. In business, it may mean granting special privileges to certain employees based on their needs and their skills or dividing tasks or budgets unevenly. "One size does not fit all," he explained. "The fair way to allocate dollars is dependent on the context in which resources are distributed, what we call 'distributive justice.'"

This also means punishments for policy violations, for instance, should fit the infraction and not be heavily influenced by anger or sympathy. "When we ask what's the right or fair response, we can't let our emotions rule the day because they can get the better of us," he said. "It's not to say emotions don't play any role; they just shouldn't trump the other considerations because they can cloud our thinking."

Be compassionate. Though it seems out of place in a business context, many of the best managers truly care about the people who work with and for them, and that compassion is reflected in their managerial style and decisions. Outside the organization, the best way to win customers is to create a trust through genuine smiles and attention. "If it comes from the heart, it has a way of creating a bond with someone. You are perceived as someone who is genuinely interested in other people," he said. "That wins you business."

Along those lines, Weinstein says it's important to show sincere appreciation. Criticize when necessary, but also remember to thank colleagues, clients and supervisors when appropriate and let them know you really value the relationship. "People are more likely to give you their business if they think you are concerned about them, and not just concerned with yourself."

All of these basic principles underscore Weinstein's main point: that companies and employees that take ethics seriously benefit most in the end. "The reason to do the right thing is not because it's profitable. The reason to do the right thing is because it's the right thing to do. It just so happens taking the higher road does, in the long term, lead to better customer relations and profitability."

Which brings us back to that friend in the interview. Weinstein says that prospective employee should be truthful and say he's unable to discuss specifics. "A company can't legitimately ask you something you have no right to do," he warns. Such a question, in fact, hints at the kind of people with whom that friend would work. And, it's always possible it's a trick question. "A smart company would want that person to honor a past commitment. Otherwise, if this person breaks confidence with his past employer, he may do it again working under them."

More answers to reader's ethical questions can be found on the next page.

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