Professionally Speaking

Ethics Are for Everyone

This month, our columnists address the role of ethics in the IT industry.

One of the classes I teach is the basic survey course, “Introduction to Information Technology.” One week we look at hardware, one week it’s databases, the following week it’s programming—all the different aspects one might be performing in an IT career. The course isn’t difficult, but one of the things I like about the textbook is that each chapter has a sidebar feature called, “Ethical and Societal Issues,” which presents a real-life scenario or description of a technology and then lists questions. This is an integral part of my course. I want my students to know that technology always has causes in and/or effects on society, so they have to think about issues like employee monitoring and identity theft.

All of us need to think about these issues, and a large component is something called “rationalization.” As Greg says, we sometimes rationalize making a copy of software by saying, “Well, they don’t really need the money.” Let’s take that line of thought into two directions. First, I’m pretty sure that Wal-Mart can get along fine without my money. So do I rationalize that it’s OK for me to shoplift from Wal-Mart? On the other side: Who am I really hurting if I make an extra copy of Windows XP? Bill Gates? No, I don’t think he’ll feel the bite. The stockholders of Microsoft? Ultimately, yes, and because a large percentage of Microsoft stock is held by institutions (mutual funds), this includes your 401K, as well. More directly hurt are those non-Microsoft employees in the supply chain, including the companies that press the CDs.

Instances of ethics lapses abound, and not just the big headline-makers like Enron, Adelphia and WorldCom. Recently, here in Cleveland, we had the trial of a rogue stockbroker who bilked his clients out of around $7 million. Many of those clients lost all of their retirement savings.

But ethics involves more than avoiding fraud and theft. How we treat our fellow employees matters, too. Usually ethical problems occur when someone views a situation as a zero-sum game: that is, in order for someone to “win,” someone has to “lose.” Our column last month talked, in part, about a situation in which a manager had supposedly taken complete credit for a subordinate’s work. Was that illegal? Probably not. Unethical? Absolutely. Just as are malicious gossip and slander.

One part of Greg’s comments surprised me, where he talks about the ethical code of his computing society being one of the first times he specifically thought about ethics in IT. At least the last three companies that I worked for had a “Code of Ethical Behavior” that was handed to all new employees.

At each company, I had to tear out a page from the booklet, sign it and return it to HR, indicating that I had read and would abide by the code. I’m sure many of you have had the same experience. How many of us take that seriously? No, we don’t forge time sheets or fabricate invoices to customers, but how many of us pad our mileage on our expense reports? Make personal long distance calls at the office? “Borrow” the latest software? Nickel-and-dime things, to be sure—but even nickels and dimes add up.

One of the first questions about ethics in the textbook I talked about earlier is “Recall a situation in which you had to deal with a conflict in values. What process did you use to resolve this issue?” Think about it. How would you answer that?

About the Author

Steve Crandall, MCSE, is a principal of ChangeOverTime, a technology consulting firm in Cleveland, Ohio, that specializes in small business and non-profit organizations. He's also assistant professor of Information Technology at Myers College and a contributing writer for Microsoft Certified Professional Magazine.

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