IT Policies

10+ things you can do to avoid ethical breaches

If you're headed toward an ethical quagmire, a few basic steps can help you find your way back to the high ground.

Enron... Worldcom... Something-gate... Hardly a day goes by without news of someone or some company in trouble because of ethical issues. For the good of the organization, and for the good of your own career, it's important to avoid ethical issues -- and conversely, to act ethically. Here are some things to consider in this regard. The first two items are directed at the leadership of an organization, while the rest pertain to everyone.

Note: This article does not constitute legal advice.

1: Have a code of conduct

Your staff will have an easier time handling ethical issues if they have guidelines to follow. Of course, no written code can cover every single situation. Nonetheless, establishing principles -- and the consequences for failure to act ethically -- will help your staff. When establishing a code of conduct, keep in mind the 80/20 rule. That is, focus on the possibly small number of issues that seem to occur the most often.

2: Model the behavior you wish to see

A fish rots from the head down. -- Old saying

For better or for worse, your staff will watch how you act and will act the same way. If what you say is different from what you do, your staff will focus on the latter and ignore the former. If you want your staff to act ethically, do so yourself. If you have established a code of conduct, make sure you yourself live up to it.

3: Disclose any conflicts of interest

As an employee of an organization, your decisions or actions should advance the interests of that organization. At times, though, you might be in a position where your decision might affect your own interests as well. Suppose you are part of a group that is deciding on a supplier, and one candidate is a company owned by your brother. Now, that supplier might turn out to be the best qualified one. However, to avoid any appearance of impropriety, you probably should disclose the nature of your relationship to the company.

4: Recuse yourself

Another option, in the case of a conflict of interest, is to recuse yourself. You could consider abstaining from any decisions regarding that supplier, after explaining why. Be aware that the group, once it learns of the conflict, might still want you to be involved at least in discussions, if not the decision. Other times, the group might wish you to have no part at all, either discussion OR decision.

5: Get consent

Not all conflicts are show stoppers. Maybe your interest in that supplier really isn't that big a deal. Whatever else the reason might be, you might be able to participate if, in addition to disclosing the conflict, you get the consent of other key people.

6: Find an alternate method

Suppose your boss or a co-worker is asking you to cut corners on a particular procedure. You believe that the requested action presents an ethical problem. You are reluctant to take this action, but at the same time you believe your career may be harmed if you refuse. In this case, try to think beyond the two choices of accede and refuse. Try to come up with a third alternative that meets the other person's objective while still remaining ethical.

7: Avoid the issue or question

Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no lies. -- Old saying

One alternative method is to avoid lying by avoiding the question in the first place. I am not saying to go through life or your career this way, but sometimes this approach is appropriate.

While studying the Titanic disaster, I came across another person whose specialty is collecting and posting (morbid as it sounds) death certificates of passengers. Having seen such certificates of Pennsylvania passengers, and knowing that the official request form limited requests to those from relatives, I asked him once how he was able to obtain these certificates. His answer? He avoided using the request form and instead sent his request via his own letter, along with his fee. That letter never mentioned whether he was a relative -- that is, the letter contained no lies. Even though he avoided the official form, he told me that he still was successful most of the time.

8: Focus on the issue, not the person

If your boss or co-worker does ask you to cut corners, and you have concerns over the ethical implications of doing so, avoid moralizing. You don't need to say or imply that the other person is dishonest or unethical, even if you think so. Alienating the other person will only make the situation worse. Instead, focus on the issue itself and on why the requested action will pose a problem.

9: Stress the advantages of the ethical approach

For example, instead of simply criticizing the other person, come up with credible reasons why your ethical approach is the better one. For example, perhaps both you and the other person will keep your jobs... or stay out of jail. Try to see the bigger picture and look from that other person's perspective. Think of ways your approach helps that person more than the unethical approach does.

10: Document key matters

Obviously, documentation of key matters is critical in these situations. Make a note, via memo or email, of all disclosures you made regarding conflicts, any consent from other people, and any concerns you have about potential unethical approaches.

11: Blow the whistle

I put this point last for a reason. Blowing the whistle to a government agency, or to the news media, probably should be the last step you take. It should be your last resort, to be done only if the above steps all fail. Yes, you might be protected by state or federal whistleblower statutes, which might forbid your being terminated or give you the right to sue. However, blowing the whistle could still subject you to being ostracized by friends, co-workers, or even family. You also might have trouble later finding work. In other words, before taking such action, count the cost carefully.

In addition, consider consulting an attorney who represents plaintiffs (employees or ex-employees) in employment cases and who knows about whistleblower statutes.

Other steps?

Have you ever been caught in an ethical dilemma? What steps did you take to resolve it?

About

Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

16 comments
Professor8
Professor8

"Even though he avoided the official form, he told me that he still was successful most of the time." So, rather than be open that what he wanted was a violation of the established ethical privacy policy, he was dishonest by omission, and the not so ethical bureaubums aided and abetted, thus demonstrating, once again, that even when they have established policies to the contrary, bureaubums readily violate privacy without batting an eye, and are never ever to be trusted in that regard. I agree with the others that you just should not do such things. "Obviously, documentation of key matters is critical in these situations. Make a note, via memo or email, of all disclosures you made regarding conflicts, any consent from other people, and any concerns you have about potential unethical approaches." This is a bit better, though not much. What they have in common is trying to get away with an ethical breach and still trying to avoid the worst of the penalties, thus encouraging more ethical breaches of that kind. But it's good advice for whistle-blowers, too, if re-aligned. Carefully document the nature of the managers' or executives' ethical breach. Get a copy of relevant statutes and the dates when you pointed it out to them. Be sure to copy a few others, at first within the organization, and then, if reform does not come about, to others outside the organization, private investigators if you can afford them, the media, congress-critters (most effective if the critter is of the opposite party of the chief offender), prosecutors, regulatory agencies. Most important, though, is to inform their intended victims so that they may take measures to defend themselves and join in the suits. The most difficult issue I've run into is the conflict between upholding someone's privacy and giving him credit (e.g. source citation). Finally, I concur with Lazarus439.

Lazarus439
Lazarus439

Remove #7 - it's got no place in an article alleging to talk about ethics Renumber #8 - #10 as # 7- #9. Add #10 - Be elsewhere. An occasional ethical issue can arise among normally ethical people if no other reason than someone not immediately seeing the ethical dimension to a possible solution. When that happens, simply bringing up the ethical problem should be sufficient to make it go away. However, if you're seeing ethical problems come up over and over again, leave. Either you'll get corrupted yourself or you'll be damaged by the fallout when the place crashes. (Eron ring a bell?)

jc
jc

While it doesn't always make you the most popular person at work, I find that most situations (ethical or otherwise) are best handled by sticking to the facts. Once you remove personal feelings and agendas from most issues, they become much clearer and easier to navigate. It also gives the impression that you are not in a direct "pissing" contest with another person, just combating the issue at hand.

minstrelmike
minstrelmike

I too agree #7 -is- an ethical breech. When I saw the title of that one, I thought it was going to say, "Punt." Hope the boss gives it to somebody else with no ethical qualms (such as someone who would avoid giving accurate information to try to bypass set procedures). How I get bosses to punt or rethink is to demand an e-mail first directing me specifically to do something so I can fall back on the 'orders are orders defense." Of course, I've never had to (so far) because any time I raise the red flag like that, the boss realizes it was a dumb idea.

henryfredles
henryfredles

Maintaining plausible deniability is a weasel's way to avoid legal liability, not moral responsibility. This is unethical on its face. Would you want your doctor, lawyer, accountant, spouse, or colleagues to be "ethical" in this manner? This is why lawyers should not write about ethics.

ppg
ppg

The person knew he wasn't entitled to the information and deliberately framed his request to avoid being rejected. His actions may be legal but they weren't ethical.

Calvin T Sun
Calvin T Sun

How about this method of not lying on the form: Suppose this guy is able to track down actual relatives. he then says to them, "please can you send in the request for the death certificate, then when you get it, give it to me"? Of course, it might look creepy and seem like stalking, but would you agree this is better than sending in the letter? In fact, he gave me no indication that he knew the requirements. Is the situation different here, vs. deliberately evading the requirement?

Calvin T Sun
Calvin T Sun

Please see below re. alternative for 7, namely, ask relatives to submit form, then give certificate to the guy. What do you think?

mongocrush
mongocrush

I anonymously turned in a coworker for always watching porn at work (it's especially bad because we work with kids). The other bad part was that coworker was buddies with the boss and my boss force the investigations unit to give up my name. Well for the next year of working there I was constantly harassed until they found out that my boss was stealing, but couldn't press charges, so the just demoted him. That is when my bosses boss took over the harassment until she was forced to retire (she didn???t realize that I took notes and logs of everything at that point and turned it into our director). At this point I was seen as a troublemaker who chewed thru bosses so I left that agency and went somewhere else. I am so much happier now. I'm still friends with people there that are still grumbling about the lack of ethics. Moral of this story is: If you are going to turn someone in who is buddies of the boss, make sure they can't find out it was you that did it.

Calvin T Sun
Calvin T Sun

See below, thanks. Alternate way to handle 7.

Calvin T Sun
Calvin T Sun

lol believe it or not, attorneys DO have rules of professional responsibiltiy, and I take them seriously. See my proposed alternate method of getting the death certificate, outlined below. What do you think?

Calvin T Sun
Calvin T Sun

Please see below for alternate way to handle 7. thanks.

Rob-dawg!
Rob-dawg!

...to communicate (in writing, speech, body gesture, etc.) with deliberate intent to deceive, or convey a false impression, is a lie. A better illustration of #7 (although I don't have a suggestion) should have been used.

sboverie
sboverie

The ethical way is to use FOIA to get information. Your solution is an improvement over the author's but still can be unethical by going through grieving relatives to do something that may not benefit them.

ppg
ppg

Here you are suggesting find an ethical way of doing the same thing which is a good idea but you already have it as #6. The revised example is obviously a more ethical way to do it since you are dealing with an event from 100 years ago and so being approached is unlikely to be very upsetting to the families. However #7 as written suggests you avoid the question. In some cases just not doing the unethical thing will work because those wanting it done will not want to make an issue of it. This is similar to your point about documenting the problem.

Calvin T Sun
Calvin T Sun

Thanks for commenting. See my point below. What if he had approached the relatives and asked THEM to turn in the request, and then when they received it, allow him to have it? Assuming relatives agree, would you say this approach beats what he did before?