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Ethics in the Modern Workplace

In: Computers and Technology

Submitted By ricaves
Words 2353
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Workplace deviance has long been a concept that was definable, quantifiable, and evaluatable. Representing an organization’s loss due theft of property, deliberate employee misconduct, or inadvertent employee waste, workplace deviance stemmed from generally overt practices that could be weighted for their significance and addressed accordingly. Although this valuation may often be subjective, it could still be made tangible to a manager in ways that suited their (and their organization’s) ethical norm. In today’s workplace, it is not easy to run a successful and profitable company and maintain ethical behavior at all times. There are too many variables involved in running a business that it can sometimes be tough to determine between right and wrong. We will discuss some of the most common and potentially troubling changes in technology that have resulted in electronic surveillance, email monitoring, restricting access to programs and or websites, and social media trafficking. Due to technological advances, workplace deviance is becoming more and more of a concern for today’s employers. In years past, employers did encounter workplace deviance, but it was of a lesser degree. Chuck Williams, author of our management book, describes workplace deviance as, “unethical behavior that violates organizational norms about right and wrong.” Workplace deviance can have both tangible and intangible effects on a company’s assets. With the dawn of the Information Age has come a new and often perplexing set of challenges for the evaluation of workplace deviance. These new challenges span the full spectrum of severity in workplace deviance, from the deliberately belligerent (harassment, fraud, piracy or theft) all the way to the inadvertent loss of productivity (so-called “cyberslacking”) (Kesan, 2002). The result of these new challenges has itself only added to the breadth of the issue. Attempts to evaluate and regulate these new behaviors with direct surveillance, communications monitoring, access restrictions, and more have created an entire new field of workplace ethics built upon the rapidly evolving digital world. Herein we will describe and consider some of the most common and potentially most troubling changes in the ethics of the workplace. We will also consider the future challenges likely to be posed to the workplace. Leaders are ultimately responsible for treating people fairly and professionally while fostering an ethical workplace at all times. However, at times this can be difficult due to differing opinions. Lastly, given the challenges currently faced as well as those looming on the horizon, we will consider the overall value of trying to apply traditional concepts of workplace deviance to the digital woes faced by modern organizations. Employers must take the time to develop policies and procedures that will work for their specific line of business. Email is one of the oldest internet systems still in widespread use today. Though it has evolved over the years in a variety of ways, the underpinnings of email remain the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), the first standard for which was published in 1982 (Postel, 1982). After thirty-one years, the use of email has not only grown, it has exploded to become a key tool of business, facilitating rapid communication. As written correspondence is key in almost all organizations, the ability for emails to be written, delivered, and spread quickly has proven invaluable to businesses large and small. It did not, however, come without a cost. Email has been at the heart of many of the ethical dilemmas now faced in the modern workplace. While the pace of email increases productivity by decreasing costs and delays, it also provides new avenues for all other forms of communication, ranging from simple misuse to extreme abuse. The dangers of misuse of email services in an organization can be seemingly innocuous (socializing between co-workers during the workday) or as insidious as harassment (Tam, White, Wingfield, & Maher, 2005). The fact that it comes in written form then adds a problematic factor to the equation -- when email intended for one recipient is then divulged to others, violating confidentiality, disclosing company secrets, or even disclosing career-ending conduct.
A common practice undertaken to combat the abuse of email has been the implementation of special hardware, software, and policies to monitor the use of email within an organization. While this practice is becoming increasingly common (some statistics indicating that the use of such monitoring had already exceeded 60% of polled organizations as of 2005) (Tam et al., 2005) the practice can only serve as a means of detecting abuse -- and while it could be suggested that awareness of such monitoring may serve as a deterrent, many organizations do not go to lengths to ensure users are aware they are being monitored, lest such reminders simply help employees avoid detection. In 2005, Boeing CEO Harry Stonecipher was forced to resign after emails he had sent to an employee with whom he was having an affair found their way in front of the Board of Directors (Tam et al., 2005). The misuse of company email, the personal misconduct carrying on an illicit affair with a subordinate, and the privacy concerns raised by how the email was made available to others, demonstrate the tangled web that is quickly woven at the intersection of email and workplace ethics. That it resulted in the direct dismissal of the CEO of one of an industry giant is an unmistakably clear sign of the magnitude of the issue. The challenges raised by email alone might seem sufficiently daunting were it not for another internet advancement that first saw the light of day in 1991, the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), which coupled with the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) formed what we now know as the World Wide Web. With the inception of HTTP/1.0 in 1996 (Berners-Lee, Fielding, & Frystyk, 1996) the internet as many perceive it today, as a series of web sites, began to take shape. The open and essentially unregulated nature of the World Wide Web poses its own series of challenges to managers seeking to harness the vast and simultaneously highly accessible information available via the internet. The growth of social media and broad range of entertainment options, which rely on no special software to access, put an organization at risk due to the potential for lost productivity. The increased use of network resources for purposes not relating to work also expends physical resources, while opening the organization to potential risk, as the less professional the content consumption becomes the more likely a user is to find themselves stumbling upon a disreputable content provider. This, in turn, makes the organization vulnerable to security risks such as computer viruses. Confronted with these threats IT departments in organizations of all sizes must logically take action to address some, if not all, of these issues. The type of action chosen, and the manner in which it is carried out, will vary greatly depending on the specific ethical norms in place. Managers must likewise choose how they will utilize the implemented safeguarding technology. The least ethically murky option for IT departments and managers alike is to simply restrict access to undesirable sites -- a subjective measure that may simply mean sites posing a security risk or anything up to and including sites offering social networking or entertainment options that made lead to “cyber-slacking”. The obvious problem then becomes how best to select which sites to restrict? Convoluting the decision even more is the simple (and ever-growing) volume of such sites on the internet -- making it difficult (if not impossible) to maintain such restrictions without a team dedicated full-time to actively pursuing new sites to restrict. The other option is to monitor the activity of employees including what sites they visit, how much time is devoted to any given site, and possibly even collecting data they submit to the site for analysis. Content retrieved by end-users can even be analyzed in real-time to determine if an employee may be viewing anything potentially untoward. Although no machine can truly (and heuristically) detect misconduct it can alert management when an employee requires closer attention. Much like monitoring the content of emails, however, this raises the spectre of privacy issues. There are also effectiveness concerns that must be considered -- while simple observation of adherence to procedures may seem simple in classical measures of workplace deviance, technology convolutes the issue, for example by impeding efforts to monitor browsing activity with the same encryption technologies being implemented to protect the organization’s data as well as the personal data of employees. Even broader-reaching monitoring has been implemented by some companies seeking to find a solution to the ever-expanding number of distractions and temptations employees may be faced with in a world that is ever more entwined with the internet. Although detailed records of call activity were once commonplace in telephone billing they are less and less so in a communications network rife with unlimited calling plans. In some workplaces, however, the convergence and telephones and networking have put detailed tracking of telephone usage (logging of callers, durations, and potentially even call recording) back on the table. Though far less common than other types of monitoring in use today (Reynolds, 2011) it demonstrates both the degree to which technological monitoring has become used as well as the lengths to which some employers are willing to go to observe their employees. Further extremes, such as direct recording of computer usage (key logging, screen recording, etc) exist, and with them even broader ethical quandaries. We are presented then with a broad array of issues facing managers in the form of information tools that have not on allowed business to be conducted more quickly and easily, but have also done the same for abuse, distraction, and even theft. As the threats from simple communication in the form of email (such as abuse of coworkers or simple misuse of services) expand into “cyber-slacking” via social media or entertaining services, or even further by virtue of piracy or exposure of the organization to outside security threats, the interest by managers in curtailing the behavior behind these deviances naturally grows accordingly. These behaviors alone raise new questions about the ethics of abuse of intangible company resources -- but the efforts to thwart the problems often raises even broader reaching questions. What is the value of a workers privacy while at work? It is valid to say that the physical computing property, while in the workplace, belongs to the organization and thus it is their discretion to determine how it is used. It would also be fair to point out that while in the workplace the generally accepted legal standard of a “reasonable expectation of privacy” does not apply to employees on premises. Adding further assurances to an organization’s practices is the fact that many (if not most) now stipulate to what privacy may and may not be expected by employees on work property. But does being legal at the same time make something ethical? Is it enough for something to be ethical within the ethics of the organization -- or is there a broader social responsibility that an organization must bear the weight of in the form of an overriding social assumption of what a person has a right to retain as private regardless of where they are. The most clearest conclusion that can be drawn from the lack of any consensus on what methods are best utilized to combat these new kinds of workplace deviance is that there is no right answer to the question of what is or is not ethical. For some managers there is a clear and present danger to the bottom line that merits any and all means of prevention are on the table. For others, the ethical quandaries outweigh the benefits of surveillance. What may be lost in the debate however is the very real likelihood of impending irrelevance of these efforts. As the next generation enters the workforce, the “millennials” come not only with new attitudes and insights as to the use of technology, they also find themselves swept up in the midst of a great paradigm-shift in the entire computing industry. Where once the notion of bringing your own personal computer to work with you would once have been bizarre, it is already the norm, and with each day every employee comes with an increasing array of their own computing devices. Smartphones, tablets, and even the soon to arrive next-wave of wearable computing devices are flooding the workplace with personal computing devices that are difficult (if not impossible) to regulate. The IT industry is quickly embracing this wave of new technologies and moving away from rigid software platforms and instead focusing on the delivery of software as a service -- a move that will not only prevent managers from dissuading employees from bringing their personal devices into the workplace, but will actually encourage it. In the very near future employees will be entering the door with an average of two to three of their own computing devices, many of which possess their own internet connections and circumvent technology that is within managerial control entirely. The application of classical assumptions associated with the defining and prevention of workplace deviance have yet to yield consistent results in the Information Age. Not only has the technological revolution ceased to stop, it is not yet even clear that it has reached its apex, and with drastic changes taking place it becomes ever clearer that the very ethical underpinnings of workplace deviance may yet need to be re-evaluated.
Berners-Lee, T., Fielding, R., & Frystyk, H. (1996). Hypertext Transfer Protocol -- HTTP/1.0. Retrieved from
Kesan, J. P. (2002). Cyber-working or cyber-shrinking?: A first principles examination of electronic privacy in the workplace. Florida Law Review, 54, 289-334.
Postel, J. B. (1982) Simple Mail Transfer Protocol. Retrieved from
Reynolds, G.W. (2011). Ethics in Information Technology. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.
Tam, P., White, E., Wingfield, N., & Maher, K. (2005). Snooping e-mail by software is now a workplace norm. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from,,SB111032415953474003,00.html

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