CXO

Dilemma: When personal ethics don't align with those of the organization

Being asked to ignore certain copyright infringements was too much for this TechRepublic member. Read his story and give us your thoughts on what to do when business ethics contradict personal ethics.


By R. Jason Smith

Some months ago, I joined the ranks of a remanufacturing company as project manager. I considered this a step up from my former job (where I maintained a database and served as the overall "IT guy") because it provided better pay, more responsibility, and a nifty, new title. My new job description consisted of maintaining the company’s computer network and overseeing several projects, including choosing a new telephony system and working with several vendors and contractors to help coordinate the company’s move to a new facility.

In the course of my application for the job, my references were checked. I’m in close contact with my references so it was a little odd when all of them reported that the hiring company was asking one particular question: “How are his business ethics?” I assumed that was a standard question that potential employers ask these days, so I didn’t think too much of it. Of course, all of my references affirmed that my business ethics were exemplary.

The dilemma
Not long after I began my employment, I was handed a copy of Microsoft Windows 2000 and asked to install it on all the computers on the network—around 20 computers in all. I asked one simple question. “Do we have a site license for this?”

The answer was simple too: “No.”

As if the anxiety of starting a new job weren’t enough, I was faced with a violation of copyright laws.

I put this task on the back burner until I had an opportunity to further discuss the matter. I went about tending to other items on my agenda until I attended a management team meeting, where I brought up my concerns regarding this issue. The CEO of the company is a corporate lawyer, and I thought that surely he would understand the legal risks involved and rectify the situation as quickly as possible.

I brought this to the table as professionally as I could, saying, “I have some concerns regarding the lack of site licenses.” I was asked to explain the situation, which I did while being very cautious not to place blame or step on anyone’s toes.

The members of the management team began to make jokes about the matter, claiming that we weren’t going to get caught, and the CEO stated that he wasn’t going to contribute to the “let’s buy Bill Gates another yacht” fund.

When the laughter died down, the VP of human resources said to me, “Jason, no one in this room shares your ethical concerns.”

Silence.

I tried to digest this comment and could only muster up a delicate comeback. “That’s very unfortunate.”

Immediately, I began to think back to my references. Why in the world would a hiring manager inquire about a potential employee’s business ethics and then make such a hypocritical comment?

Shortly after the meeting, the CFO of the company asked me to put together a report for the management team outlining the cost of the site licenses compared to the cost of the violations if the company were to “get caught.”

My research led me to The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998, which prohibits anyone to use or illegally copy software for financial gain. For violating the act, the offender can be fined up to $500,000 and can be imprisoned for up to five years on the first offense. You can learn more about this act and other copyright laws at the United States Library of Congress Copyright Office.

After speaking with a certified Microsoft reseller, I learned that the total price of the site licenses would cost around $5,000. As if the ethical and legal arguments weren’t strong enough, I was then able to report that purchasing the proper site licenses was the best choice financially as well.

This is the information that I reported back to the CFO, and this is the information that sat on the desks of the various members of the management team for over a week. Each day, I asked about the status of my report and, each day, I was told that it was “on the back burner.”

I talked several times with my supervisor, the VP of human resources, regarding this issue and was brushed off every time.

Everyone paid close attention to my letter of resignation, however, which clearly stated that I was leaving due to this violation of copyright law. I could no longer bring myself to work for a company that was knowingly breaking a law and refused to rectify the situation.

So, I left and took my “ethical concerns” with me.

What would you have done?
Do you agree with this writer’s reaction to being faced with an unethical situation in the IT organization? If not, tell us what you would have done by joining the discussion below.

 

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