A co-worker gives notice, announcing she accepted a job with a competitor. She is asked to leave immediately by Big Boss. You discover she copied confidential information on products, services and costs before leaving. What are the ethical dilemmas caused by this action?
Costs are one of the most sensitive “intangibles” a business has. It is right up there with the customer list and employee information. So how does this co-worker’s action impact us directly and the company as a whole? And what is our responsibility here? What are the ethical dilemmas caused by this action? Good questions! While I am not a technology wizard, this is another real-life experience I found when a co-worker left and I was asked to help resolve it.
What is your gut reaction as you read the scenario? For many people when this scenario comes up for discussion in my ethics workshops there is a sense of indignation. How could that worker just take this information? Surely the individual understands that the information is company property, right? What will this co-worker do with the information? To be fair, the co-worker may just want the information as a working model they could use to create new analysis and they have no plans to share the information with others. No matter how honest this person was when working for us, the simple action of copying this confidential information destroys our ability to trust this individual or believe he or she will avoid sharing it with the competitor.
What’s the harm in taking this information, you say? Well let’s explore that. If a competitor knows your costs they could undercut your costs and win bids for new projects. If a competitor knows what products you’re about to launch, they might beat you to market or adjust one of their own products to match you. If a competitor knows your costs they could redesign their own products to be more competitive. Just to name a few potential consequences of this co-worker’s actions…. Not very pleasant outcomes for us!
Do we always ask where information comes from when a colleague presents it? Or do we take our colleagues on trust? Ah, the ethics issue continues to take shape. Trust and clear communication are at the heart of the matter. We trust that our co-workers do the research and get their information from publicly available resources. That’s not always the case. If we are not clear about identifying and defining confidential information, our workers may not understand that the information taken is considered confidential. And if company culture rewards people for “beating the competition” we’re providing an environment that condones and encourages people to get information in whatever way possible.
Most people want to do a great job, but if they don’t know how to do something they may share information to get help. Having an Internet society makes sharing much easier now. And most people do share confidential data innocently without thinking or understanding. I’ve seen researchers chatting online with colleagues about a particular problem they’re having in developing a new product or service. They think they’re just having a technical discussion with a friend or getting technical help, but they do not realize they might be providing a clue to the “secret sauce” their colleagues have been searching for in their own work. Additionally, our workers might have a sense of ownership or entitlement to the information because they did the research or created the program or designed the product.
What is our responsibility here? We now know that a co-worker has taken sensitive information. Do we report this or not? Is it our responsibility to protect company assets and confidential information, or is it someone else’s duty? Or is it easier just to ignore it and pretend it never happened Most people might want to report it but either don’t know who to speak with or have a hard time identifying whether or not this is truly something that needs to be reported. They also don’t want to be seen as “snitches” or troublemakers.
Does our policy manual explicitly state what is considered confidential information, what to do in a case like this, or who to report to? Most of the time the answer is no because many companies focus on physical assets rather than intangibles like cost information or customer lists. As a result, many people could likely do nothing.
So what actions would we take? Would we talk directly with the co-worker and stop them in the act? Would we let them take the information and call them later to request that it be returned? Would we tell the boss and wash our hands of the follow-up? And if we’ve done this ourselves, innocently or intentionally, would we destroy the documents? Would we contact or old employers and let them know we took the information? Would we do nothing?
Protecting the company’s assets includes protecting confidential information. Taking this responsibility seriously ultimately protects our job and the company’s reputation.
So how would you respond to witnessing this event? Write in your comments and share your perspectives on this situation, using the comment box below.
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After watching companies and clients struggle with ethical dilemmas, Marcy J. Maslov invented a business ethics board game to provide a practice arena for solving real-life ethical dilemmas. Marcy is founder and CEO of Empowerment Unlimited Coaching, LLC, a business coaching practice devoted to building strong, ethical leaders and entrepreneurs. She has extensive Fortune 500 and entrepreneurial background including implementation of Sarbanes-Oxley programs, creation of corporate ethics courses, forensic accounting and public speaking on business ethics. Marcy has lived or worked in over 20 countries, including France, Mexico and Canada. She is a Certified Professional Coactive Coach, CPA (Illinois), and MBA (Duke University). Contact Marcy at marcy@e-Factorgame.com or www.e-Factorgame.com.