Six ways to stay ethical

You might be confident in your personal ethics, but what about those of your department or company? Here are some tips for keeping your shop is ethical.

1. Consider the front-page rule. Before making a decision, decide how the company would feel if it were splattered across the front page of a national newspaper. "If you're making a decision you don't want anyone to know about, then it's a bad decision and you shouldn't do it," says Dieter Marlovics, CIO at Gelber Group, a Chicago brokerage. "Even if you think it will help the business at the time, if it's not ethical and it becomes known, the business will suffer far more."

2. Formulate ethical, yet practical, policies. If your policies aren't practical, no one will follow them, and attempts to make your shop ethical will fail, users say.

Dennis Peasley, information security officer at Herman Miller, a furniture company in Zeeland, Mich., cites this example: "In Michigan, it's illegal to put men's and women's underwear on the same clothesline. But no one arrests you for doing that. That's a rule that doesn't make sense, and so it's not enforced. In networking and in your company, you need to set practical rules you can enforce."

3. Educate users. Formulating ethical policies is difficult unless you fully understand the issues. That's where IT comes in, users and experts say.

"My role is to explain the consequences, since the people making the decision aren't usually technically savvy," says Erik Towt, network analyst at the Denver Broncos football organization. "You don't want to go around like Barney Fife and police everything, but you need to explain the issues clearly. Technology changes daily, and you have to keep up with it in order to stay ethical."

4. Make ethics part of the hiring process. When hiring, most IT shops check references, but primarily to verify technical skills. Few companies hire with an eye toward ethics, says Winn Schwartau, an expert on computer ethics and president of The Security Awareness Company. "But ethics should be part of the hiring process. If I'm giving people the keys to the kingdom to run pieces of my shop, I better be sure they're ethical," he says.

5. Ensure staff members know what to do when faced with an ethical dilemma. Staffers need to know what the rules are and the steps to take to enforce them. Wells Dairy suffered when a network employee went against company policy and installed pornography on his computer, says Tom Rohde, director of technical services for the dairy. "Other people within the department found out about it and were talking amongst themselves, but no one informed me," he says. "Eventually, I found out about it and the person was fired, but not before the staff lost a lot of time and energy gossiping about it."

After that, Rohde says he met with staff members individually to underscore the need to first approach the offender and next escalate the problem to him.

6. Enforce ethical standards strictly and evenly. "You need to be consistent in the policy, the enforcement and everything you do," Towt says. "That's the easiest way to ensure you're running an ethical shop. Even if [you've got to challenge] a friend, you have to be consistent."

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