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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Insurmountable Differences

Jocelyn Tan

For over twenty years, Shawn has served as an electronics design lead for a U.S. defense company. One of the few African-American employees, Shawn has had a long-standing reputation with the company as being reliable and technically adept. To demonstrate the high level of trust it invested in him, the company gave Shawn the honor of giving a formal presentations to new-hires and junior professionals on a topic of expertise several times during the year.

One day, Shawn was presenting on nanoparticle fabrication techniques and noticed a senior colleague, Cory, in the audience. Shawn remembered that during his first few months at the company, Cory was a design manager. However, after Shawn received a rank promotion less than a year into his employment, he recalled Cory being seemingly unhappy with his success because he started making passing remarks to Shawn like “Isn’t it a good day? Affirmation action is alive and well!”

As Shawn concluded his presentation and entered into Q&A, Cory questioned Shawn’s method of reasoning. Although he was a non-expert on nanoparticle fabrication techniques, Cory contended the mathematical derivations Shawn used to prove his designs were invalid.

Shawn attempted to justify his work, explaining his results were based off performing proven repetitions of the derivation, and that the procedure had undergone countless reviews. However, Cory was still unconvinced, persistently claiming that Shawn was wrong. Shawn chose not pursue the argument.

After the meeting, Shawn privately confronted Cory, and proceeded to explain the derivations in detail. In response, Cory exclaimed, “So you did know what you were talking about! Don’t take it personally, Shawn; I was just making sure so you don’t mislead the youngsters.”

Was Cory’s motive to challenge Shawn during the presentation justified? Should Shawn do anything further with regards to the situation?

Jocelyn Tan was a 2014-2015 Hackworth Fellow in Engineering Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

August 2015

Aug 26, 2015