Examples needed of ethical situations at work
February 20, 2007 9:26 AM   Subscribe

Looking for *your* real-life example of an ethical situation, problem, or dilemma at work.

I’m teaching a class on business ethics and I can make use of additional real-world examples. Have you, in your occupational life, observed or been involved in a situation with ethical implications? Any level of analysis potentially is helpful; for example, interpersonal, group, organization, or industry level. (Btw, I did find a couple of old AskMe questions that possibly are useful examples.) Thank you!
posted by langedon to Work & Money (36 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
This isn't a big one, but... I worked for a place that was doing a massive and controversial prevention-based health education program, which was state mandated to be evaluated for effectiveness (one that is supported strongly by the current administration). The evaluator of the program did a (non-representative) sample of ten classrooms (yielding just under 300 surveys) in one school district and provided the results to the state department of health.

This was in lieu of analyzing the entire data set -- over 2,800 surveys collected across 100 classrooms in three school districts. (Yes, the Executive Director knew about the discrepancy and did nothing.)

After I left the employment of the above place, I notified the state department of health contact for the grant and told her of the shortcomings in the evaluation. The following fiscal year, funding became contingent on collecting evaluation tools from all classrooms, and analyzing all of the data collected to determine program effectivness.
posted by parilous at 10:11 AM on February 20, 2007

how about the fact that I am on websites 90%- 99% of the working day, every day as my hardworking coworker in the cube next to me toils without as much as a toilet break.
posted by brinkzilla at 10:13 AM on February 20, 2007 [4 favorites]

I just turned down a freelance job on ethical grounds. It involved doing promoting a chain of weight-loss clinics, which I think prey on people's self-hatred and plain old don't work.
posted by ottereroticist at 10:18 AM on February 20, 2007

I did have a co-worker at the Big Evil CellPhone company tell a unpleasant customer "I have your address, your date of birth, and your social security number. Now do you want to be polite to me, or shall I wreak havoc on your credit, sir?"

At the same company we were often told to upsell plans regardless of customers' needs. For example, if a customer had one of the old 30 minutes for 10 bucks plan, we were to do everything in our power to shift them to a more expensive plan with more minutes. The idea was that we would get more a month out of them and they would still not use that many minutes.

We also were told to do everything to prevent customers from leaving. If a sales rep sold them a phone and contract in an area that had crappy reception, we were encouraged to *never* waive the contract termination fee, regardless of whether the customer was lied to or not.

There's a reason I don't work for them anymore.
posted by teleri025 at 10:21 AM on February 20, 2007

I once worked for a database marketing firm that had, as one of its clients, a prominent maker of smokeless tobacco products. I started off working on a completely different account (for a company that made eyeglass lenses), but, after I'd been there about a year, was given some work on that account. I asked if there was any other work I might do, as I couldn't morally justify encouraging people to use an addicting carcinogenic substance, but was told that I was the best person for that work, and that was final.

I immediately began looking for a new job (I couldn't afford to be unemployed), and left about two months later when I found one.
posted by cerebus19 at 10:22 AM on February 20, 2007

I once worked for a very small business where the owner paid his housekeeper/babysitter from the company payroll, even though she was not an actual company employee.
posted by JanetLand at 10:23 AM on February 20, 2007

Magazines, newspapers, and periodicals are sent endless review copies of new books, albums, and films, only a few of which will ever be written about. Not only is there the option of requesting materials that one personally desires, regardless of whether there is any plan to review them, but then the masses of leftover items are often sold to secondhand book and record stores for a not-insignificant jolt to the office petty cash collection.

This is an industry standard that I've always had a hard time adjusting to, after a life of experiencing each individual book or album that comes into my home as an earned commodity. I'm sure others don't think anything of it, or even consider it a perk.
posted by hermitosis at 10:26 AM on February 20, 2007

As a web developer, I try to make my work accessible to all users, even though the very low-end users may not seem to be a "target market" for a particular client. I believe that the more accessible information in general is, the more people can come to understand each other. One could argue that this ends up making me take more time and serving my paying clients' near-term goals less well, but I believe my approach serves everyone's broader goals better.

I did stop working for a client who ran a site that gave/sold "winning lottery numbers". At first, I took the client on because I thought, well, everyone deserves a chance to tell his story clearly and with good design, and I figured the lottery is a harmless-enough pastime. Then I realized that this was a serious business, and people were actually spending money and time on "winning" lottery numbers. He was nice, but no thanks.

Also, there seem to be interesting examples through a tag you
posted by amtho at 10:33 AM on February 20, 2007

My company (Company R) contracts to another company (Company W), who actually makes a product. Company U purchased Company W's product, and I was sent to do some work on Company W's behalf. Company U liked me and my work so much, they asked if I would be willing to do some side work for a fixed fee. That is, to "bypass" Company W and my employer, Company R.

Nothing has become of it, but I've decided that if they're serious, I'll offer it to my employer first. Not to do so would make me feel as if I were competing with my employer. I don't know if that's unethical, but it makes me feel weird. :)
posted by TheNewWazoo at 10:39 AM on February 20, 2007

I worked for a company that was not doing well. On a Wednesday at noon, we were told we were closing our doors by Friday. An hour later, the son of the owner went to all our offices and took out our phones, plugs and all, knowing full well that we wouldn't be able to call our clients and warn them about what was happening.

I took a few of my coworkers aside and we ran home with client phone numbers and called them personally, telling them not to send us any money and hopefully saving them from incurring future losses and lawsuits from THEIR clients.

It was the only "good" thing that happened out of a very bad situation. Years later, I ran into someone who thanked me profusely for saving his reputation. It was a small act that has made me feel very proud of myself and of my fellow co-workers who took the situation into their own hands.
posted by HeyAllie at 10:39 AM on February 20, 2007

I lent money to my boss, about $1800 IIRC. She was having trouble paying me back, in little monthly drips. Later, she decided that I was going to get paid a special bonus for the work I'd done on the school website, and hey, wow, it just happened to be the amount she still owed me and wanted that to clear the debt.

I must have a black ugly hole where my moral compass should be. In the heat of the moment, I countered that in that case I wanted double what she was offering.

We both acted really wierd around each other for about a month, and she eventually said that no, I really had earned that money, and she still owed me the balance of the debt.

After that things went back to normal, but I still feel guilty about my initial reaction.
posted by Meatbomb at 10:42 AM on February 20, 2007

I can e-mail you two ethics-in-journalism situations, both resolved without too much trouble, if you're interested. I would prefer not to post them online. My e-mail address is in my profile.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:47 AM on February 20, 2007

Just to make that absolutely clear: I was willing to collude with my boss to defraud a charitable NGO, working for a cause I believed in, over a measly few hundred bucks.
posted by Meatbomb at 10:47 AM on February 20, 2007

This was a small thing that happened at my last job...
I was working in the Marketing dept. as the company graphic designer. About a week into the new year, we hired a new web-master. He was a very talented guy and worked his ass off to get the website redesign implemented, along with developing a whole raft of web-based features for use by the sales staff. He often worked late into the night (both in the office and remotely from home) in order to make the ridiculously short deadlines enforced by upper management. He was a great asset.

Toward the end of the year, management decided that they could afford to hand-out bonuses. As we all got our checks, it became apparent that Mike (our webmaster) had not received a bonus. When I inquired to the Marketing Director as to why Mike had been left out, he informed me that, because he started his position one-week into the new year (as opposed to starting on Jan. 1) he wasn't eligible for any bonus, regardless of how hard he had worked for the other 51 weeks of the year.

I swallowed hard and handed him back my bonus check and told him what I thought of such small-mindedness.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:27 AM on February 20, 2007

A few years ago an LA ad agency hired me to do the packaging for a video box. Easy, I thought. Only, later I found out it was for a promotion that a cigarette company was doing at Nascar races & such. They were making videos of people at the races to send to their loved ones serving in the military overseas. During the course of filming the video, they would ask if the soldier in question was a smoker. I was told to make two different boxes, both covered with all sorts of red, white & blue apple pie "America kicks ass!" imagery (children holding flags, etc.) but one of the boxes was going to have different info because it was going to come with free cigarettes.

a) I am opposed to war
b) I am opposed to cigarettes
c) I am opposed to the use of shmaltzy patriotic images to sell products in general, let alone this
d) I was really opposed to so many things about the job I'll just stop there.

After realizing what the project was, I didn't know what to do. I had already accepted the job and I needed the money. I very hesitantly did some initial comps, hating myself the whole time. After a week or so, the project was scrapped for whatever reason. I have never been more relieved.

Just thinking about it still makes me feel pretty nauseous. If I was in that kind of situation now, I would quit. It wasn't worth how I felt (and still feel) for doing it.
posted by miss lynnster at 11:46 AM on February 20, 2007

I worked for a dot-com that had some general shaky dealings with its employees. The setup was that they made a lot of promises and then renegged - pretty standard stuff, nothing explicitly criminal. Except one day the cops showed up looking for our CFO with a warrant. Something to do with his previous job. Never got the full story on that one.

I think the most ethically challenging thing I've seen and worked on directly was my last job (thankfully) at a dot-com. It was sort of a online advertising deal where boat owners (both individuals and dealers) could place ads for their boats.

It was sort of tricky the way the hosting packages were structured. Basically a single line ad was free, if you wanted a photo that was extra, then there were a whole host of other packages and add ons they would try to sucker people into. They had an entire department devoted to calling up users and harassing them into upgrading their listings. (If this tactic sounds familiar to print ad sales its because the site was owned by a brick and mortar publishing firm.)

Anyway, the entire enterprise was under pressure to show how "hot" the various websites were... so the web developers basically engineered all these little tricks into the website to generate false hits. So if you visit the front page, thats counted as a hit. If you ran a search, that was also a hit. If you clicked on a ad... yup, counted as a hit. So basically one unique visitor was recorded as multiple users and this inflated number was passed along to the board of trustees. Every month the designers figured out new ways to make up these false hits and every month our total site views were astronomical when in fact the real usage of the site was much smaller. This was in '01 or '02 so people weren't exactly sure what they were looking at back then, but they didn't seem to question the reality of a boat selling website receiving a million or more unique visitors in a month...
posted by wfrgms at 12:04 PM on February 20, 2007

Upon review, some clarification... I was very opposed to THIS war. And I'm not a smoker myself, but I'm not my brother's keeper. I AM opposed to specifically targeting lower-income Nascar-loving families to encourage their deployed soldier sons to get hooked on a company's brand of smokes, though. I mean, that's just... gross.
posted by miss lynnster at 12:25 PM on February 20, 2007

I knew a guy in college who, for the average college student, did really well for himself financially. He owned a house that he lived in off-campus, he had a pricey late model car, money was never a problem with this guy. A lot of people he know assumed it was family money. It wasn't. He had a business he had started himself. The crux of the business was:

- buy cheap clothing at a thrift store
- sell to migrant workers (!!!) on credit (!!!)
- $$ PROFIT! $$

No, seriously, that was his cash cow. I can't even count the layers of unethicalness, can you?
posted by contessa at 12:25 PM on February 20, 2007

My first "real" job was as a bookkeeper for a prominent SF attorney. He used to borrow money out of his escrow account, which is supposed to be sacrosanct for clients' settlement money. He paid it back before anyone knew, but monkeying around with the escrow account is grounds for disbarment.

I knew it was wrong, but I was 23. No way was I going to drop a dime on him. Up until he died, I used to wonder if I was going to get subpeonaed and have to testify against him.

He also used to make me go around the office and ask the staff who "really needed" their paycheck, and who could wait a few days. Haaated that part.

He also used to write checks to his mistress out of the business account, which I sometimes was asked to deliver to her at her luxurious high-rise apartment. I kind of got a kick out of that part, because she was very elegant and smelled fabulous.
posted by ottereroticist at 12:29 PM on February 20, 2007

I used to be in PR, which is an almost unbelievably unethical industry. (As in: I literally could frequently not believe the kind of shit that went on.)

I'm not sure if specific incidences would be helpful to you or not, but before I worked in PR, I was a happy and frequent consumer of news media, and now I'm not. I used to have a faintly ridiculous sense of awe and wonder about journalists, and now I mostly don't. Yes, I'm aware that there are many good ones. But there are also many who could in essence be bribed with free crap and slick pitches and outright lies-- the latter would of course be passed on to the consumer, who would believe them, because IT SAID SO IN THE PAPER or on TV, etc. etc.

Plus, on a more prosaic level, huge - huge - HUGE - lies were always told to the client about what kind of effect the campaign they were paying for was having.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 1:41 PM on February 20, 2007

I worked for a public sector organisation that mistakenly overclaimed central government funding for several years running, by very significant amounts. When they discovered this they asked me to keep it confidential because if they had had to repay the funding they thought the financial loss would have destroyed the organisation (they were not planning to overclaim in the future). I talked to a philosopher friend who put it in terms of no-one being directly harmed by their overclaim, whilst people might be harmed if they were made to repay it. I agreed to keep quiet about it, and left fairly soon after, partly because of this and partly because they were terrible employers.
posted by paduasoy at 2:27 PM on February 20, 2007

My department manager has known for at least 4 or 5 years that we do not have enough software licenses for a software program that nearly everyone in our work group uses on a daily basis.

Now I'm hearing rumors that someone has turned up the heat about it, and his solution has been to start quietly having it removed and then telling people to find a freeware solution.

I think that's wrong; and that it only fair and right that our company compensates the software company by buying licenses for the software that everyone has been using all day long for more than ten years.

Also, I have good reason to believe that if I blow him into to the corporate ethics department or the software company, and he figures out it was me, I'll be the one who suffers long term pain and retribution.
posted by 14580 at 2:47 PM on February 20, 2007

At a party recently, I was asked by a group of anti-SUV activists if I had any ideas to get people with large cars to give them up. I suggested they start an ad campaign saying men who sat in heated seats have lower sperm counts than men who drove without them. Basing it on the assumption that SUVs were more likely to have heated seats.
Spurred to action, the activists have gone off and are working on a campaign as I write. Though it is probably all total bullshit.
posted by parmanparman at 3:33 PM on February 20, 2007

I was onced asked by a client if I happened to know how to burn a CD that looked like a failed write. Apparently they wanted to send it in to a contest in order to pull off some scheme to get an extra few days of deadline.

I went ahead and burned it.
posted by Netzapper at 4:14 PM on February 20, 2007

Oh, I also wrote and maintain a piece of software for a client that purports to read auras. He sells this bullshit for hundreds of dollars to "investigators" who then charge their "clients" to have their auras interpreted.

I am mercenary.
posted by Netzapper at 4:15 PM on February 20, 2007

Response by poster: Thank you to everyone for taking the time to post your example. Thanks also to my off-line correspondents, who provided some great personal stories--including one jaw-dropping account of corporate espionage. There is a lot here to think about for use in class. To me, this thread is one big best answer.

I don’t want to cut the thread short. If you’ve found this thread late and still wish to post your own example, by all means do so.
posted by langedon at 7:56 PM on February 20, 2007

I worked for an attorney right after law school who was horribly disorganized, antagonized clients for asking questions about cases, missed tons of deadlines, and generally blamed his incompetence on external factors.

I was hired to handle a specific sort of caseload he had, and attempted to treat my clients differently. My plans would always fall apart because my boss would come into my office in a panic, cause me to drop everything and write a memo or brief, only to find out it wasn't due for another 2 weeks. In the meanwhile, a filing due the next day would go ignored.

Eventually I quit because he was getting shady about paying me, and because I didn't want to get entangled in any malpractice suits he would surely have filed against him.
posted by reenum at 8:10 PM on February 20, 2007

I work in a law firm library and do legal research. Once during a large case, my boss was asked by the atty to track down some news broadcasts from several years before. These are rather difficult to find, and she ended up having to contact the broadcasting stations directly. They basically told her "we won't search this for you because you're from a law firm - if it's important to the case, get a subpoena." She passed this on to the atty who directed her to call back and pretend to be a student or member of the media working on a nonprofit project... My boss was pretty enraged by the idea and declined to do so.
posted by marginaliana at 8:51 AM on February 21, 2007

I've got another one. This one is from my current place of employment, which is a local government. It illustrates how the ethics thing can go a little too far.

For a little bit of background, everybody who works where I work effectively answers to a small group of elected officials. They are our uberbosses. Of course there is the normal type of organizational structure under them - managers and directors and stuff. But the buck stops with them.

Several years ago we had a batch of commissioners who were maybe not the most ethically-minded group of people. In fact, the local media discovered (by connecting an amazing few amount of dots) that most of them were in the back pockets of some seedy developer-types. The end result was that three of them resigned in shame, and of that three, two spent some time in the Big House. It was really that bad. And of course as you would expect, the next batch of elections were all about how they were going to bring ethics back to the local government, and make sweeping changes, yadda yadda.

Ok, so what were these sweeping changes you might ask? I'll tell you! It was a bunch of extremely stringent and no-room-for-debate set of ethics rules for the employees. The elected officials, yeah, they have 'em too, but they're unbelievalbly broad-sweeping and purely for public consumption -- "See, we made all these rules, our employees can't so much as lick the glaze off a free donut, so that proves we are ethical now!!"

I'm not going to suggest that a public sector employee is above graft, or wields little influence, because I know that isn't always the case. And I totally agree that ethics rules are necessary, and it's kind of sad when they have to be spelled out to the extreme that we live them every day where I work. But obviously, the problem was with the trusted elected officals, the "deciders." There had not been before any activity even in the same universe at the foot-soldier level, as the palm-greasing that got the commissioners in trouble. But the hammer fell on the little guys anyway to straighten up and fly right - even though that's pretty much what we'd been doing all along.
posted by contessa at 9:14 AM on February 21, 2007

After working for a company for about 8 months, I found out that this company made most of its money by bribing the governments of third-world countries to pass laws that would ban their competition, giving them a monopoly. It sounded pretty shady. Not much I could do about it, but I didn't leave the company.
posted by agropyron at 11:30 AM on February 21, 2007

I worked for a school district, my boss was in charge of the district's cable station but was horrible about the budget. The last year, he completely ran through his budget way to soon. The superintendent told him he could take some money out of another department's budget. My boss took this to mean that he had carte blanche spending-wise and wasted an impressive amount of money.
posted by drezdn at 12:31 PM on February 21, 2007

A former boss of mine was dating someone who also worked in the same company (but not the same department). A rare promotional opportunity came up that the girlfriend and one of my co-workers both applied for (they were both qualified). Because we have to have our current manager's permission to even apply for jobs in other departments, my co-worker had to ask the boss. Since he knew his girlfriend was also applying, he did his damndest to talk my co-worker out of applying, even telling her she wasn't qualified (she was) and wouldn't enjoy it. Eventually, though he did relent, but my co-worker had reason to believe he talked to the hiring manager in an effort to sabotage her chances. The girlfriend got the job.

I was friends with all three of them, it was an awkward situation for all of us. To this day, I'm not sure if my co-worker's suspicions were grounded.
posted by tommasz at 1:22 PM on February 21, 2007

some time ago I worked a crappy low-wage government sector job, and I and my department colleagues were constantly told how valuable we were to the 'success of the project' bla bla bla. fast forward thru months of slave labour at near minimum wage with no raise, no vacation, no benefits, nothing... the week before Thanksgiving, we all get told this big huge sob story 'oh man this sucks but we have to eliminate this department, our third quarter numbers were really low and we just don't have the budget to keep you...'

so okay, yeah we're now all out of a job, and that sucks but what to do in the interim? my colleagues and I brush up our resumes, start pounding the pavement and file for unemployment, right? only to find out from the state that apparently we were all 'fired with cause'. *cue WTF noises*. apparently, in order to save themselves from paying unemployment, they lied about cause, knowing full well that the bureaucrasy and cost for us to take a government entity to court wouldn't be feasible for a bunch of minimum wage slaves who, in the end, could basically just shrug and go wait tables for better pay.

what can you do?
posted by lonefrontranger at 2:44 PM on February 21, 2007

This came up just yesterday:

I am currently in a remote area of the state I work in and finished the job I cam here to do early, leaving me with most of today free. The person in charge of the company I was visiting offered to take me out for the day on his boss's boat to do some fishing (this region has probably the best Barramundi fishing in the country), depending on the outcome of the work I was doing (I work for the government and I'm here to help him ;-). With only a small twinge of regret, I made an excuse about having to catch up on work at my motel. Which is where I am now.
posted by dg at 2:54 PM on February 21, 2007

I worked for a while as a freelance editor for a company that helped edit kids' college application essays. At the beginning, I was mostly getting essays from foreign students whose first language wasn't English, and I spent my time fixing their spelling and doing minimal edits for vocab/grammar issues; we also were supposed to include a page of comments that included suggestions for further editing or major restructuring.

Which I was OK with -- I was functioning mainly as a qualified grammar-check/spellcheck, and using my editing experience to help teach people to be better writers.

Then the management decided we should be doing more substantial edits. We were instructed to rewrite intros and conclusions (which were usually the weakest parts of the submitted essays), to make major structural changes when required (which was almost always), to feel free to change the entire focus and subject of the essays. Rather than submitting changes we thought the writer should make, we were expected to submit summaries of the changes we had made to the client and our bosses (and I think our rate of pay, or at least rate of pay advancement, was dependent on how thorough these changes were).

Basically, the job went from editing to rewriting. I had a few qualms about editing college admission aps, in that I felt I was helping kids get into Ivy League schools who might not have the writing skills necessary to handle it, but I could brush those away. Once it became obvious we were expected to get these kids into these schools at any cost, I bailed.
posted by occhiblu at 10:30 PM on February 21, 2007

I work for a non-profit community-based organization that receives over one million dollars a year in donations from individuals and corporations. About 35-40% of that money is earmarked for one particular program, which focuses on children, which happens to be the program I run. You know, people love giving money to help children... and we are good at taking that money.

As the amount earmarked for children's programs continues to increase year after year-- no doubt, at least in some part due to the excellence of the program I run-- I have had to revamp my budget every year to cut cut cut expenses and eliminate or cut back the very same programs we highlight in fundraising materials.

When I ask about this, I am told that although the program costs less to run that the donations gathered, it would cost much more if we were to go out on our own and try to start up a brand new program just like it. Basically, the money donated to children is really going into overhead for the organization.

This is an extremely gray area, because there are certainly overhead costs that can be reasonably allocated to my program, which are not included in my departmental budget. However, if I were a donor and I was informed my gift was not really going to children, it was helping to pay for the accountant or the front-desk receptionist... I might not keep donating.

I have done some study of non-profit ethics, and due to the fact that you have public trust and are (in theory) supposed to be motivated by some mission other than simply profiting... the information that was most helpful to me was this. "If your organization would be embarassed or jeopardized if this policy/program was documented in a front-page article in your local newspaper, then it's NOT ethical."
posted by Sabine3283 at 7:51 AM on June 24, 2007

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