Our “What would you do?” column is a forum for sharing your knowledge and experience in dealing with the softer side of computer support. Every two weeks, I will present a scenario that requires more than a technical solution. Each situation will be an accurate description of an actual event, with the names and other identifying factors changed to protect the innocent—and sometimes not so innocent.

I will first present the outcome and discussion of a scenario from a previous week. Then, we’ll jump right in to the next problematic situation. So without further ado, here are your responses to our column “E-mail investigation: Abuse of power or necessary precaution?”

Members sound off on tech’s covert e-mail investigation
More than 160 members commented on this scenario, and the majority of responses focused on the following three questions:

  1. Should the tech have read Marcus’ e-mail?
  2. What should the tech’s boss have done?
  3. What should the tech do now?

Should the tech have read Marcus’ e-mail?
When asked whether the tech in this scenario should have read Marcus’ e-mail, most members fell into one of three categories. There were those who felt the tech had every right to read Marcus’ e-mail, because the company policy allowed for such activity. Others thought that although the tech’s actions weren’t the most ethical, he didn’t have much choice. And lastly, there were members who felt the tech was abusing his position as an administrator by reading Marcus’ e-mail, regardless of the company’s policy.

Johncymru suggested that instead of simply reading the user’s e-mail, the tech could have obtained his manager’s permission to examine Marcus’s mailbox on the pretext of finding out “why e-mails sent to him on the company system did not arrive.”

What should the tech’s boss have done?
Many readers were distressed by the IT manager’s apparent lack of support for his employee, having assumed that the user’s complaint was legitimate without even attempting to investigate the issue. “The IT manager should have clearly stepped in and buffered his staff,” wrote RicoReuter. Many members stated that if the manager had given the tech the support he deserved, the tech wouldn’t have felt compelled to read Marcus’ e-mail.

What should the tech do now?
In regard to what the tech should do now, there was a general consensus that the tech has no choice but to act as instructed and supply Marcus with the clip art he needs, or else the tech could face a charge of insubordination. In addition, a variety of suggestions were made as to how the tech could take steps to exonerate himself and prevent such an incident from occurring in the future, for example:

  • Send out regular policy and procedure e-mails to the users, explaining why they are necessary. Preferably the IT manager should send these.
  • Contact Marcus to apologize for having “lost” the e-mail he sent to the help desk, and ask him if he wouldn’t mind resending it so that the database would be complete.
  • Create a log file of Marcus’s previous requests for help, demonstrating that none of them followed company procedure—then bring this to the attention of the IT manager.

So what did the tech actually decide to do?
After discussing the matter with his coworkers, the tech decided to come clean with his boss and admit that due to his discomfort at being falsely accused, he had used his administrative privilege to read Marcus’ e-mail. Fortunately, his boss was supportive, although he did express concern about the credibility of the IT department if this information was shared with the general user population.

Together, the tech and his boss devised a plan for dealing with Marcus. First they addressed his immediate need for clip art by working with him to make an appropriate software purchase. Then, they embarked on a much needed “educate the user” campaign through e-mails and brown-bag lunch sessions to explain and justify company policy regarding computers.

Although Marcus’ attack on the support tech seemed personal, addressing it as a symptom of a discontent and uninformed user base allowed for an impersonal solution that didn’t reveal that Marcus’ e-mail had been read, and that might just help to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.

Coworker shirks her duties: What would you do?

Update: So what really happened?

To learn the outcome of the scenario outlined below and get a recap of the comments and suggestions given by TechRepublic members, click here.

For you consideration, here is our latest scenario. Please be sure to send responses to this scenario, because this one is from a reader seeking advice on how to deal with an ongoing situation. Once you’ve read our account of her situation, take a moment to offer your advice.

Lucy and her coworker Ethel make up the entire IT department for a local school district. They have no direct supervisor and, as Lucy puts it, they are the only ones available to get the job done. This means that they must be self-motivated and do what it takes to keep things running.

Unfortunately Ethel doesn’t share the workload at all. She constantly makes personal phone calls, chats online, browses the Web, and works on personal projects. To top it all off, Ethel is also a bus driver, and the principal (Lucy and Ethel’s boss) has given Ethel permission to do a double bus run in the afternoon as long as she gets her IT hours in. This means that she leaves at 2:30 and is supposed to come back after her runs to finish her work, but she never does. When Lucy recently took the month’s time sheets upstairs to the office, she noticed that Ethel had “fudged” her hours to make it look like she had never left for her bus runs at all.

Lucy is stuck carrying Ethel’s workload, and no one is aware of the situation because they have no immediate supervisor. Lucy can’t talk to Ethel about the situation because the last time she tried, Ethel went on the defensive and became very hostile. Lucy doesn’t want to be a whistle-blower, because Ethel will know where the accusation came from and will make Lucy’s work environment miserable. What should Lucy do?

What would you do?
If you were in Lucy’s shoes, how would you handle the situation? If you have ideas about how a satisfactory resolution might be achieved, send them to us. Don’t hold back and don’t be afraid to be creative. And if you’ve ever encountered a similar situation, we’re particularly interested in hearing the steps you took to achieve a resolution.

You can submit your ideas either by e-mail or by posting a discussion item at the end of this column. A week after the publication of a scenario, we’ll pull together the most interesting solutions and common themes from the discussion. We will later present them with the situation’s actual outcome in a follow-up article. You may continue to add discussion items after the week has elapsed, but to be eligible for inclusion in the follow-up article, your suggestions must be received within a week of the scenario’s publication.