Where Do IT Pros Rate on the Ethical Decision Scale?

Don Tennant
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Edward Snowden, a systems administrator, broke a crucial trust with his public disclosure of sensitive information regarding NSA intelligence gathering. Every day, a number of IT professionals become aware of H-1B visa fraud and abuse at their companies, and don’t report it. The mainstream press has featured quite a few stories lately that might make the general population wonder about the ethics of IT professionals.

Apparently, however, the perception isn’t bad at all. In a recent Gallup poll, respondents were asked how they would rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in various fields. IT professionals weren’t on the list, but for what it’s worth, engineers ranked very high. In fact, they were tied with physicians in the number three spot, just behind nurses and pharmacists. So to the extent that the IT profession includes various engineering disciplines, my hunch is that IT pros, in general, would also rate highly.

I raised that topic last week in the context of a broader discussion of workplace ethics with Mark Pastin, CEO of the Council of Ethical Organizations and author of the new book, “Make an Ethical Difference: Tools for Better Action.” Pastin confirmed my hunch:


The people on the list that ranked highest are people who do something besides moving paper. So I would think an IT professional and an engineer would be ranked very similarly. People identify engineers with things getting done. The professions they tend not to like are those that either move paper or make trouble for one another.

Pastin went on to highlight the unique ethical challenges faced by IT professionals in the realm of privacy:

Right now, there’s a special domain of ethics that’s particularly important to the IT community, which is privacy. Ethical concerns over privacy have been amplified, and will continue to be amplified. The NSA revelations have triggered concerns about privacy, well beyond the government’s snooping. They’ve made it possible for people to understand the extent to which snooping can go. And IT professionals are uniquely situated to either go along with these violations, or to resist them. IT professionals are going to have to develop ethical standards on when they will search databases and do such things.

As we broadened the discussion, I asked Pastin if he had any sense of whether a difference exists between the genders as to the likelihood of being more or less inclined to make good ethical decisions in the workplace. He said his research has shown that a difference is evident, but it’s not that one gender is more or less ethical than the other:

The difference is a female respondent is less likely to violate a policy. Men will make exceptions for themselves to policies; women are less inclined to do so. They’re a little bit more observant of rules. It’s not a huge difference, but there is a difference. That’s on a survey that measures responsiveness to policy. We have another one that looks at responsiveness to ethics. There, it’s about the same.

How about generational differences? How, for example, do millennials stack up against baby boomers? Pastin said he didn’t have any data on that, so it’s just a matter of opinion:

My opinion is a little different from most people. I think the baby boomers were unique in that they felt that only certain rules applied to them. I think millennials are less likely to make exceptions in their own favor. Baby boomers were a unique period in culture, when there was a premium in showing you wouldn’t observe the generally accepted standards. I think the younger generations are more likely to observe generally accepted standards. Roughly speaking, most people think of ethics as the standards that govern society’s behavior.

Pastin has said that people have an innate ability to make good ethical decisions, so I asked him for his thoughts on whether a spiritual dimension adds to this innate ability. His response:

Some people who believe there’s an innate ethical ability do have a spiritual or a religious orientation to that. But I don’t think innate ethical ability is in any way limited to people of a certain spiritual belief, or even to people who belief in the spiritual. It’s like any other innate ability—the ability to see, the ability to hear, the ability to balance yourself. The ability doesn’t care that much about what you believe.

I told Pastin that I found the religious dimension of the discussion interesting, since the issue of God in the government workplace is in the headlines right now with the Supreme Court hearing a case involving a New York town opening its board meetings with prayer. To the extent that the discussion can be extended to the non-government workplace, I asked Pastin what role belief in God plays in fostering an ethical work environment. He prefaced his response by noting that belief in God comes in many different varieties:

There is a variety where that belief in God is very relevant to your day-to-day decisions. It’s very relevant to whom you associate with, both in and out of the workplace. You might even belong to a prayer group that doesn’t meet on the company’s [premises], but involves company employees. Generally, people who are oriented towards some faith-based belief are probably a bit more ethical in the workplace. It’s not because of what they believe. It’s because they think about right and wrong—who they are is related to the concept of right and wrong. So I don’t think it’s specific to any religion. I think when a religion influences a person to think about right and wrong, it also influences their ethical conduct.

In the interest of getting some practical advice from Pastin that I could share, I asked him what an employee should do if he sees his supervisor doing something that’s unethical. He said that in order to have an ethical workplace, employees need a way to skip over the line of command:

And it has to be the case when they do skip over the line of command, they’re protected. So what the employee should do is find someone in the workplace—it could be a higher-level manager, it could be an ethics officer, some places have a compliance officer—somebody they don’t report to directly to discuss it with. … There are no guarantees. Going outside the line of command is always risky. Doing the right thing involves risk. When you’ve got a supervisor who’s doing the wrong thing, there’s a lot of risk because if you don’t report it you can get it trouble, and if you do report it you can get in trouble. So my belief is since you’re at risk anyhow, you might as well report it. When the supervisor is doing wrong, and somebody finally discovers it, they’re going to ask, “Where were you? Did you go along with this?”



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