Making your decisions ethical

Even the most principled net execs see shades of gray in software licensing, vendor billing mistakes and other business issues that challenge their values.

Each new business day brings challenges that test values and shape character, especially in this era of tighter budgets, shortened project cycles and cutthroat competition. How do network executives ensure that their shops stay ethical?

"Sometimes it's a tough call to know the right thing to do," says Dieter Marlovics, CIO at Gelber Group, a Chicago brokerage firm. "That's why ethics is such an important topic to discuss. You for the most part know what you should do, but when it comes right down to it, what would you really do?"

The most common ethical dilemmas network professionals face have to do with software licenses and digital copyrights.

"The nature of digital information makes it difficult for people to see it in the same moral category [as physical property]," says Caroline Whitbeck, an ethics professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and director of the school's Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science. "If you steal someone's pencil, they don't have the pencil anymore, but if you copy their software, they still have the software."

Winn Schwartau, president of The Security Awareness Company and a computer ethics expert, agrees but adds that enforcement is also an issue. "Nobody really knows if you have the right number of licenses in place. And very few companies actually get audited, so the temptation to cheat is there," Schwartau says.

We asked several network executives what they would do if they learned they didn't have enough software licenses to accommodate their users, but also knew no money was available to purchase more. Most said they would either find a way to purchase the software or go without. "If I found out, we'd license it," says Donald Sternfeld, a CIO who oversees networking at Ropes & Gray, a Boston law firm. "We just don't do illegal software here, ever."

Sternfeld says he ensures users can't load unapproved software by locking down their desktops, and he makes sure the firm stays current on licenses in his crafting of software agreements. "We have licenses where you 'true-up' annually," he says. "Once a year, you take an inventory of everybody using a product, and you purchase what you need. That's totally within the terms of the agreement."

Donald Sternfeld

In a law firm, ethics aren't optional, he says. "We're held to high standards. If it came out in the press that we were doing something unethical or illegal, we could lose clients. It's not worth it," he says.

At Gelber, employees are held responsible. "We establish upfront that illegal software is not condoned here," Marlovics says. "If people don't listen and someone gets caught, that person is responsible." If the company is fined, the person who copied the software is responsible for the payment, he says.

Others say practical considerations take precedent. "Our problem was Microsoft [Office] licensing," says Tom Rohde, director of technical services for Wells Dairy, an ice cream company in Le Mars, Iowa, and runner-up in our 2002 User Excellence Award competition. "We purchased new hardware but we couldn't purchase the software licenses for it at the time. The money wasn't there. But we kept track, and when our software agreement with Microsoft came due, we bought what we needed to become current and then some."

What makes situations like the above example difficult is that people tend to view ethical dilemmas as us vs. them. "People look at who's the potential loser. If it's a corporation that will lose a few dollars, then the hell with it. If it's an individual who's going to suffer, people will go out of their way to be righteous," Schwartau says.

Erik Towt, network analyst for the Denver Broncos, agrees. He points to digital music and unauthorized downloading and sharing of MP3 files. "Users think it's them vs. Metallica. They don't see it's not only a legal copyright issue, but also a bandwidth issue and a security issue, and it affects them personally," he says.

When Towt finds users illegally using software or sharing music, he strictly enforces company policies, but he also works to make sure users police themselves. "We push whatever button works with people to get a good outcome," he says. "If that's the morality button, great. We tell them this really isn't right and what they're doing is illegal. If that doesn't work, maybe we'll push the security button and let them know that by using something like Kazaa [for file sharing], they could open up a hole in our network and the Oakland Raiders could get access to our plays."

Pushing the self-interest button usually works best, Towt says. "You can explain that if they get all this stuff off the network, it will make the performance better, and that's usually what gets them. They need something tangible," he says.

Still, it's one thing to enforce policies on end users. It's another having to police your peers on the network staff. Dennis Peasley, information security officer for Herman Miller, a furniture manufacturer in Zeeland, Mich., faced that problem.

Herman Miller officially prohibits the use of Kazaa and MP3 sharing. "But I found a server used by the network guys that had questionable stuff on it," Peasley says. "It turns out that one of the guys I work with really closely had put a fairly large amount of stuff there. Maybe he had taken one of his DVDs and backed it up there, but I don't think that's what happened. So I had to think, what do I do?"

In the end, Peasley had his friend remove the data. "We don't allow it, and if I find a share open that has questionable files on it, we have to shut it down, even if it's a friend," he says. "If you don't enforce policies for everyone, what good are they?"

Beyond friendship, money is at the root of many ethical dilemmas. We asked users what they would do if they found a mistake in their favor on a large service bill. Would they notify the vendor and rectify it?

It depends on the situation, users say. "If I get a bill from a vendor with a mistake, I actually think ethically that the problem isn't mine," Ropes & Gray's Sternfeld says. "If I send a bill to a client, that client has every right to expect the bill I sent is accurate. If I screw up, it's my fault."

Gelber's Marlovics hedges. "The right thing to say is you bring it up to them, but let's be realistic," he says. "The chances of something being that obvious that you catch it, especially if you get billed regularly, are pretty small. Still, if you do spot it, and your relationship with the vendor is very important, you should let the company know because it will foster better relations."

Gelber experienced a similar situation when its accounting department sent an invoice with a check for payment to the wrong vendor. "It was for $100,000," Marlovics says. "That vendor could have just deposited the check, and we wouldn't have known any better. But it chose to tell us. The vendor got a lot of goodwill there, and we'll do more business with it because of it."

Customers first

What about ethics toward customers? We asked the executives what they would do upon discovering their consumer Web site had been hacked and customer credit card numbers compromised.

Wells Dairy's Rohde says it depends on the number involved. "If you're talking in the thousands, it would be difficult. If it's just a couple of hundred, I would say contact them and let them know. If you don't do that, there's a chance you could lose your whole customer base," he says.

Others say you should tell everyone, no matter how many customers are involved. "If they find out later that you were hacked and you didn't tell anyone, it's almost worse than going through [the process of] telling everyone in the first place," Gelber's Marlovics says.

It would be harder if you took the problem to upper management, and it decided against informing the customers. "That would be tough," the Bronco's Towt says. "In the end, it doesn't affect me and I know about this instance with the credit cards. But I'd have to wonder - what don't I know about? I'd rather think that whoever I'm working for is truly honest, and that I don't have to worry about them anymore than they have to worry about me."

Herman Miller's Peasley agrees. "If the boss were to tell me to do something immoral, I couldn't do it," he says. "One of the highest things you have is integrity."

Cummings is a freelance writer in North Andover, Mass. She can be reached at

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