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Ethical Dilemma

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Ethical Dilemma

By Jeff Zhu


Few years ago, as a computer consultant, I was contracted to a medium size electrical company. One day I was handed a copy of Microsoft Office 2000 and asked to install it on all the computers on the remote office --around 50 computers in all. I asked one simple question. "Do we have a site license for this?"

The answer was simple too: "No."

As if the anxiety of starting a new contract job weren't enough, I was faced with a violation of copyright laws.

I put this task on the back burner until I had an opportunity to further discuss the matter. I went about tending to other items on my agenda until I attended a management team meeting, where I brought up my concerns regarding this issue. The controller of the company is a CPA and a corporate lawyer, and I thought that surely he would understand the legal risks involved and rectify the situation as quickly as possible.

I brought this to the table as professionally as I could, saying, "I have some concerns regarding the lack of site licenses." I was asked to explain the situation, which I did while being very cautious not to place blame or step on anyone's toes, because that I was a contractor in this company.

The members of the management team began to make jokes about the matter, claiming that we weren't going to get caught, and the head of engineering stated that he wasn't going to contribute to the "let's buy Bill Gates another yacht" fund.

When the laughter died down, there was a person from human resources said to me, "Jeff, no one in this room shares your ethical concerns."


I tried to digest this comment and could only muster up a delicate comeback. "That's very unfortunate."

Immediately, I began to think back to my references. Why in the world would a hiring manager inquire about a potential employee's business ethics and then make such a hypocritical comment? In my case, even though I was a contractor, I should act as its employees for any ethical issue.

Shortly after the meeting, the controller of the company asked me to put together a report for the management team outlining the cost of the site licenses compared to the cost of the violations if the company were to "get caught."

My research led me to The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998, which prohibits anyone to use or illegally copy software for financial gain. For violating the act, the offender can be fined up to $500,000 and can be imprisoned for up to five years on the first offense. You can learn more about this act and other copyright laws at the United States Library of Congress Copyright Office.

After speaking with a certified Microsoft reseller, I learned that the total price of the site licenses would cost around $15,000. As if the ethical and legal arguments weren't strong enough, I was then able to report that purchasing the proper site licenses was the best choice financially as well.

This was the information that I reported back to the controller, and this was the information that sat on the desks of the various members of the management team for over a week. Every few days, I asked about the status of my report and, each time, I was told that it was "on the back burner."

A month later, I talked several times with the IT manager who I reported to, the HR person, regarding this issue and was brushed off every time. I brought this issue to my contracting house. I was told that I did the right thing. However, for the contracting position I was at, I should focus on consulting business. I should let the electrical company to handle this "small" issue. After the conversation with my superiors, I was quiet on this violation. A year later, my contract was ended. Both the electrical company and my contracting house thanked me for doing a good job. The time I left the electrical company, the license violation had not solved yet.

For this ethical dilemma, I should have handled it differently. Business ethics involves a lot more than compliance with company policies, laws and financial regulations. These are major concerns with high visibility. It makes headlines when these are not obeyed. For those reasons, most organizations do not have problems with these issues. Instead, it's the "little things" that cause problems.

I understood that it was illegal to use unlicensed software. On the other hand, I was afraid that the electrical company could terminate the contract earlier and I could loss my job. I did the right ethical decision at the beginning. However, I was back out at the end.

Sometimes it is hard to make ethical decisions, especially, for a contractor. I will follow below three steps to making my ethical decision in the future:

Step one: Follow the Golden Rule

Step one of the Josephson Institute (JI) model states, "All decisions must take into account and reflect a concern for the interests and well-being of all stakeholders." It suggests that you observe the Golden Rule as a first step to testing a decision's ethical rating:"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Of course,



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