Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

The Effects of Ethics Policies: A Positive Story

By Jessica Silliman

Mike Bradley was well established in his career in human resources when he went to work for a mid-size, IT company located in the Bay Area. At the time, Arthur Andersen had just gone out of business for illegal accounting practices and ethics scandals were all over the news. But against the grain, Mike's new company had taken the commitment to ethics to a new level. The company made a conscious effort to dedicate itself to be an employer that actively supported ethical business practices. They wanted employees to be comfortable speaking up about ethical issues, so they partnered with an external ethics company which fielded anonymous phone calls about ethics concerns. In addition, each employee was required to navigate an online values course that provided ethical dilemmas for employees to solve. Mike felt comfortable knowing his company took ethics seriously.

After two years with the company, Mike encountered a situation that questioned his morals. He had been assigned to create an online tool designed to explain the inner workings of the company to each employee. He had committed to having it done in two weeks, but he encountered a problem: some of the content necessary for the online tool was under copyright. Mike knew that he didn't have time to request use of the material. He also knew that, if he used it illegally, it was likely nobody would notice.

"Deep down I knew it wasn't right to use the content," said Mike.

Flagging this as a concern for the company would delay the project, but Mike was committed to the ethical stance of the company, so he went to the management team. He told them that, although he knew he wanted the project done, he would be forced to violate the company's stance to accomplish the project on time.

Mike offered two options to the management: they could purchase the content or eliminate it from the online tool. E ither way, the project would be delayed.

Mike was quickly praised by the management for bringing the issue to their attention. Managers told him that he did the right thing.

Discussion Questions:

  • Assuming that unauthorized use of copyrighted material may be illegal, do you also think it's unethical? Why or why not?
  • Do you think Mike would have made the same decision if his company had not had an extensive internal ethics policy?
  • Name at least three things that you think indicate whether a company is committed to ethics or not.

Jessica Silliman was a 2006-07 Hackworth Fellow at The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

June 2007


New Materials

Center News