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Her Honor

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Social Media Create an Ethical Dilemma

Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011

The following is a fictionalized case reflecting some of the ethical dilemmas facing public officials.

Mike Monroe and Derek Wheeler were roommates and fraternity brothers at a small mid-western college. Both were political science majors, so they saw a lot of each other, both in academic and social situations. Derek’s wild and outrageous pranks, excessive drinking, and one-night-stands earned him the reputation of playing “fast and loose” in his personal life. He had been caught plagiarizing twice, but was only given a warning. Still, he was personable and a good friend, so upon graduation the two vowed to stay in touch.

After their fifth college reunion, where Derek became so drunk he needed to be hospitalized, Mike decided to break off communication. His only updates on his former roommate came through the fraternity alumni magazine, where Derek submitted updates on his career. He had a master’s degree in public administration, and had been working for cities in several states. His job in each jurisdiction lasted only two or three years, but each new job sounded like a promotion. Mike figured Derek had finally “grown up” and was happy to learn of his success.

Mike had also been successful. He moved to Utah, and worked as a field representative for a state legislator. He fell in love with public service and was elected to the city council. He was now in his second term as mayor, and was overseeing a new “culture of ethics” program in River Falls, stressing  values in addition to the rules outlined in the code of ethics.

It had been 10 years since they last connected, so Mike was surprised to get an invitation from Derek to be a friend on two separate Facebook accounts. Mike agreed, and first went to a personal account featuring facts about Derek’s education, work history, and family. The second Facebook page, with privacy controls restricting access, was for a group called “Derek’s Doghouse.” The other “friends” on the site included some fraternity brothers, but also a collection of men Derek had met or worked with over the years.

He founded the group, according to the site, “ to celebrate the good life: wine, women, and wild times.” The wall postings chronicled wild weekends in Las Vegas, gambling on sporting events, and exploits with women while on business trips. The 20 or so members were candid, unedited, and occasionally profane in their comments, bragging about their bad behavior. The stories were often accompanied by compromising photos.

Within days of the Facebook contact, Derek called Mike to ask for a job recommendation. He was submitting his application for the assistant city manager position in River Falls and wanted Mike to put in a good word. “I’ve never asked for a favor,” Derek said, “but this job is perfect for me and my family. I really hope you will be able to influence the HR director and city manager to hire me.”

Discussion questions:

  • How should Mike proceed?  Should he tell Derek he doesn’t feel comfortable making the recommendation?
  • Should he tell Derek that River Falls is not a "good fit" for him?
  • Does he have an obligation to alert the HR manager and/or city manager of the way Derek conducts his personal life?
  • Is Derek’s secret personal life an indication of his values? Does it matter?

Please let us know what you think by posting your comments on this site.

Tags: Facebook, public trust, relationships between elected officials and staff, social media

 
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