A Question of Ethics?

The article I have written follows this piece from the TechRepublic newsletter. It will only take a second to digest it before you read my response.

IT ethics and the recession

  • Date: December 31st, 2008
  • Author: Michael Krigsman

Michael Krigsman takes a look at the results of a recent survey about the recession’s effect on work ethics. He advises employers not to underestimate the level of stress the recession causes workers.


This is a guest post from Michael Krigsman of TechRepublic’s sister site ZDNet. You can follow Michael on his ZDNet blog IT Project Failures, or subscribe to the RSS feed.

With a major recession in full-swing, someone had to come up with a survey covering the ethics of office workers in three countries. The punch line: a large percentage of folks surveyed would steal confidential company data in the event of layoff rumors. The results are fairly ugly, painting a negative picture of ethics in the workplace.

Security firm, Cyber-Ark, conducted the survey, called The Global Recession and its Effect on Work Ethics. The company interviewed 600 workers in the US, UK, and the Netherlands.

When asked how far respondents would go to keep their job, 15 percent of Americans said they would consider blackmailing their boss! At first, I thought this was a joke, but it appears to be serious after all.

Unfortunately, the answers are not a positive reflection upon my fellow citizens:

Survey results

Gaining advance access to a termination list seems to be an almost-universal desire:

Survey results

Although customer and contact lists are also popular targets:

Survey results

And the most popular way to steal employer information? The ubiquitous memory stick. Since email comes in second, it appears these data thieves are relatively unconcerned about leaving tracks behind them:

Survey results

Key takeaways for me:

  • Employers should not underestimate the level of stress the recession causes workers. Treat your folks with respect and dignity and they’re more likely to behave decently back toward you.
  • Once workers learn they may be targeted for downsizing, their ethics may erode. Employers should be aware of this and enhance security accordingly.
  • A small number of workers are just plain dumb. Threats of blackmail? You’ve gotta be kidding.

What do you think the results say about workers in the three different countries studied? Share your thoughts in the discussion.

A Specious Argument

A reply to IT Ethics and the Recession
by Ebon Storm

When I reply to a post that is filled with indistinct language, or hot button words that are subject to misinterpretation, I often go and get some clarity from the dictionary to be sure that I am not misinterpreting what the argument is about. So we are going to start with Ethics and Morality.

–plural noun
1. (used with a singular or plural verb) a system of moral principles: the ethics of a culture.
2. the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group, culture, etc.: medical ethics; Christian ethics.
3. moral principles, as of an individual: His ethics forbade betrayal of a confidence.
4. (usually used with a singular verb) that branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions.

1. conformity to the rules of right conduct; moral or virtuous conduct
2. moral quality or character.
3. virtue in sexual matters; chastity.
4. a doctrine or system of morals.
5. moral instruction; a moral lesson, precept, discourse, or utterance.
6. morality play.
7. The quality of being in accord with standards of right or good conduct.
8. A system of ideas of right and wrong conduct: religious morality; Christian morality.
9. Virtuous conduct.
10. A rule or lesson in moral conduct.

Though not a statistician, the results from that survey are probably from a very small sample, and thus not likely to be an effective gauge of the true level of participation of members of all of these societies in these moral quandaries.
It IS however, an interesting premise from which to ask the question regarding corporations, their workers, the loyalty and implied fealty that workers should have to corporations whose questionable ethics are reflected in their workers.

What you should really be asking…
If your corporation pays its executives extremely high salaries in relationship to its rank and file workers, you should expect that loyalty (and thereby all social engines related to it i.e. ethics, morality, temperance,) should expect to be challenged especially during times of economic stress. It is hard to feel loyalty if you feel betrayed by a group that has a significant effect on your very existence. We have been taught to aspire to a thing that is directly out of our particular reach. We are led to believe (and it is regularly reinforced with the power of media hypnosis) that any single one of us can become rich if we simply work harder and longer (or are smarter, more beautiful, or better connected) than the next guy and that not having money does not affect your ability to eventually make significant amounts of money.
But like a television montage, we skip over the steps that allow for the super-rich to get and stay rich. We skip over the historical wealth garnered through the exploitation and deaths of indigenous, enslaved or indentured peoples, we skip over the child labor, the back room dealings, the exploitation, the misogyny, the nepotism, the cronyism, the segregation and the basic corruption that has taken place when ethics take a back seat to the acquisition and maintenance of mega-wealth. We are culturally blind to these things in our own attempt to acquire a piece of the pie. The real trick is that we have been taught to fight over the crumbs, rather than to question what happened to the cake…

If you live in a culture that promotes consumerism (a level of buying that actually props up the economic engine of your culture) or “affluenza – the sickness by which an overwhelming need to purchase and own objects of cultural relevance due to a bombardment of advertising or cultural influences” you are more likely to be affected by an economic downturn because your lifestyle and mental conditioning will influence (or even dominate) your ethical engine (this is a threat to your very existence and your socio-mental structure) you will be inclined to do whatever you deem necessary to offset this threat. Not saying that it is right but when a culture produces this kind of “engineered madness” for the sake of economic prosperity, you have to realize that people’s responses will not always be rational ones.

If a group of people are experiencing an event (in this case replacement, downsizing, mass terminations) it is human nature to seek a means of control, through the collection of knowledge or potential resources, bartering of power both benign (trade or negotiation) or malignant (blackmail or extortion) or the hoarding of potential future resources (equipment, sales contacts) to leverage them against future losses or other potential gains. This is again not about ethics but the more basic human issues of survival.

The Route to Sanity
Abraham Maslow posited that human beings respond to their environment based on their fulfillment of basic needs and that these needs were hierarchical, meaning that more advanced needs could only be met when basic ones were fulfilled. Those needs included:
  • Physiological needs – needs of the flesh (i.e. oxygen, food, water, environmental comfort),
  • Safety and security – no threat of external damage or loss due to social environmental forces (i.e. rioting, extensive plague),
  • Needs of Love, Affection and Belongingness – the ability to feel love and affection are able to be freely expressed. This is necessary to overcome loneliness and alienation (both of which are often in major supply in some of the most successful organizations BECAUSE it keeps people dependent on the corporation to provide safety. An artificial dependence is engendered by the corporation (whether this condition is a conscious choice on the members of the corporation or not is another question),
  • Needs for Esteem – humans have a need for a stable, firmly based, high level of self-respect, and respect from others
  • Self Actualization can only be achieved when all the others are met. Self Actualization is that state when a person feels they are doing what “they were born to do”.  “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, and a poet must write.” These needs make themselves felt in signs of restlessness. The person feels on edge, tense, lacking something, in short, restless. If a person is hungry, unsafe, not loved or accepted, or lacking self-esteem, it is very easy to know what the person is restless about. It is not always clear what a person wants when there is a need for self-actualization.

The hierarchic theory is often represented as a pyramid, with the larger, lower levels representing the lower needs, and the upper point representing the need for self-actualization. Maslow believes that the only reason that people would not move well in direction of self-actualization is because of hindrances placed in their way by society (poor education, consumerism, “affluenza”, reality television). He states that education is one of these hindrances. He recommends ways education can switch from its usual person-stunting tactics to person-growing approaches. Maslow states that educators should respond to the potential an individual has for growing into a self-actualizing person of his/her own kind.

Life Imitates Art (People Reflect their Environment)
I question the entire argument of this original post in that I can respect that corporations, as engines of employment, have an expectation to pay a wage and expect that certain responsibilities are to be met by its workers. But I also believe that the corporation, as the employer, has the implied “Noblesse oblige” (an expression used to imply that with wealth, power and prestige come responsibilities, particularly to those dependent or less fortunate than the noble or in this case corporation) to ensure that its workers are given every opportunity to prosper along with the corporation when times are good and to suffer as little as possible during times of duress and shortage. “Noblesse oblige” also implies that the rich and powerful should provide examples of behavior above and beyond the minimal standards of decency in order to encourage it in everyone.

And to be fair, Maslow posited what would be necessary to address the real issues of people. I will also list them because ultimately until corporations embrace these ideas, they will continue to have the same issues (lack of loyalty, corporate espionage, staff instability) because people’s real issues have not been met. The ten points Maslow thought needed addressing were:

  1. We should teach people to be authentic, to be aware of their inner selves and to hear their inner-feeling voices.
  2. We should teach people to transcend their cultural conditioning and become world citizens.
  3. We should help people discover their vocation in life, their calling, fate or destiny. This is especially focused on finding the right career and the right mate.
  4. We should teach people that life is precious, that there is joy to be experienced in life, and if people are open to seeing the good and joyous in all kinds of situations, it makes life worth living.
  5. We must accept the person as he or she is and help the person learn their inner nature. From real knowledge of aptitudes and limitations we can know what to build upon, what potentials are really there.
  6. We must see that the person’s basic needs are satisfied. This includes safety, belongingness, and esteem needs.
  7. We should re-freshen consciousness, teaching the person to appreciate beauty and the other good things in nature and in living.
  8. We should teach people that controls are good, and complete abandon is bad. It takes control to improve the quality of life in all areas.
  9. We should teach people to transcend the trifling problems and grapple with the serious problems in life. These include the problems of injustice, of pain, suffering, and death.
  10. We must teach people to be good choosers. They must be given practice in making good choices.
So does the article make a good point about watching your workers during times of economic strife to be sure that they won’t walk away with corporate secrets?


But that truth is mitigated by the simple fact that if you were treating your workers in a way that showed them you respected them, that you valued them, that you made every effort to be fair and equitable with them, that you treated them (and by proxy, their families) with dignity (no matter whether the company prospered or faltered) you would be less likely to have to worry about those things.

People’s ethics would not be challenged, because as self actualized beings, their ethics would not be malleable in the first place.


(1) Dictionary.reference.com

(2) Wikipedia (noblesse oblige)

(3) Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs from Psychology – The Search for Understanding, by Janet A. Simons, Donald B. Irwin and Beverly A. Drinnien
West Publishing Company, New York, 1987