Business Ethics, Professionalism and the Workplace: Information Systems

  The paramount question every professional asks himself or herself is "am I worth what I make?" This is always important, even though today, as Year-2000 conversions are beta-tested and implemented the demand for certain professionals appears to have exploded. There will always be cycles of varying supply and demand.

Different professions have varying cultures and expectations. This sidebar will focus on issue of particular importance to professionals in information systems.


  A professional keeps abreast of technological change that enables him to do his job more efficiently. This includes a habit of trying new techniques in the workplace and sometimes includes formal classroom training, both during and off-hours. This also requires a reasonable personal investment in the "tools of the trade," normally meaning ownership of a personal computer or laptop with reasonably current technology and, as part of good citizenship, developing the capability to work efficiently from multiple locations with less commuting and travel. Of subtle importance is a mentality that is open to paying attention to new ideas, despite the pressures and urgencies of a particular situation.

A professional maintains agility in infrequently used skills, as he has previously advertized himself to possess, that may be necessary in emergency situations. A good example would be the ability to read a core dump without special dump-reading software tools.

A professional follows application or systems best practices and coding standards For example, a professional would get translation codes off of a table maintained by users rather than by hard-coding them. A professional is respectful of appropriate use of resources.

A professional who supervises others maintains reasonable personal competence in the skills required by the tasks he delegates. He is a "doer" as well as manager.

A professional does not promise a customer a product or service that he cannot deliver within reasonable expectations of time and cost.

A professional subjects himself to certification examination by organizations recognized in the IS industry.

All of these examples to require a level of concentration an psychological commitment to professionalism.  


A professional recognizes that once he has implemented or delivered a software product, the customer will expect it to work reliably in countably infinite repetition. This means a professional "warrants" his work. Therefore a professional makes himself available to support what he has produced in an on-call situation with reasonable reliability and frequency. This capability would cover work produced by teammates when he is in a position to be reasonably familiar with this work. A professional responds reliably when on-call and stays with a problem until it is resolved without necessarily demanding extra compensation. A professional provides some of the infrastructure for making himself available, such as dual home phone lines and cellular phone or beeper access.

How much of a professional's personal time and outside interests can reasonably be impacted by on-call status should be negotiated with the customer or employer. This proportion may depend on many factors, which can even include the professionals' other responsibilities at home (such as being a parent).

A professional does not over-commit his personal time in a manner that conflicts with this responsibility. He is wary, for example, of excessively buying prepaid items such as discounted non-refundable weekend airline tickets if this practice would make him unavailable and burden other workplace teammates.

Personal Character and Conduct:

If, as often occurs, a professional has access to sensitive customer records that may include trade secrets or personal information, normally protected by privacy expectations, about other customers, the professional must protect his own personal reputation and credit-worthiness. This is especially important when the professional sometimes has the personal capability to update customers' financial, medical or personal records while fixing production problems. The professional does not repeatedly miss bill payments or fail to complete personal financial obligations, as would be evidenced by foreclosures, evictions, repossessions, court judgments or liquidation bankruptcies or even unpaid hospitalizations. The professional is capable of being bonded if audit requirements by his employer make this appropriate.

A professional complies with existing laws, regulations, and internal audit requirements. These include following accepted information security procedures (including protection from computer viruses), using fictitious data in development phases when appropriate, and respecting separation of functions in any fiduciary operation. They also include complying with copyright laws, especially with respect to software licenses. A professional does not use his customer's or employer's computer resources (including email or internet access) for personal, non-business purposes without explicit permission and only then in an incidental manner.

A professional works well in a team environment. He is helpful to others in reasonable proportion to his own need for assistance and his own position, and will ptich in, even at his own expense, to help colleagues with sudden emergencies, such as family illnesses.

A professional avoids using mind-altering substances (whether legal or not) which could later affect his consequentialistic reality perception or acuity while at work. This would include use of alcohol during or shortly before work. A professional recognizes that the "on-call" portion of his job may require a certain physical stanima which he should not undermine with unhealthful habits.

A professional does not make hateful or threatening statements about others (fitting the legal notion of "animus"), even in the workplace where such statements cause disruption and distraction, or even publicly (under his own name) outside the workplace where knowledge of his statements may disturb other associates and even customers. This requirement does not preclude participation in political debate outside the workplace in a reasonable and fair manner. (Even debating workplace discrimination issues, the professional should confine himself to discussing incidents and practices that happen in many workplaces, not including unusual incidents in his own. However, the First Amendment would protect the logical reasoning or other content of arguments which he could make.)

The professional does not behave in a bizarre manner that may cause customers to mistrust his motives or the adequacy of work already implemented. With reasonable deference to cost, a professional follows accepted system development protocols, and user signoffs of various development and testing phases.

Disregard of some of the conduct rules listed above may put an employer at risk for legal liability, when, for example, the professional has repeated access to personal customer information. These rules become especially important when a professional has others reporting directly to him, or when he makes decisions that affect customers.

Conflict of Interest

  The professional safeguards all private, proprietary, company-specific, or confidential information about his employer or customers entrusted to him. This obviously means not using the information for his own purposes and following all regulations regarding access to the information or removal (including downloading) from the employer's or customer's premises. Of course, it also means honoring copyright restrictions (as in for-hire intellectual property) and complying with software license agreements (not making illegal copies for personal use).

The professional does not enter into private business arrangements where he has something to gain (either direct financial gain or further personal recognition or opportunity) from competitors of or competition with his employer, or from events that would harm his employer or his employer's major customers. These events might include unwanted public attention brought down on the employer or customers or, prospectively, direct harm because of a proposed political or public policy change. This probably does not include ownership of proportionally small amounts of securities of competitors. A relevant issue may be the proportion of the person's income that is accounted for by a particular customer, and whether the person "depends" upon a customer with which he or she is at odds.

The professional does not commit his time in outside business (or "moonlighting") arrangements in such a way that his availability for work (or physical alertness while at work) or on-call duty is affected.

The professional establishes a clear understanding with his employer about the ownership of his personal "publicity rights" and use of the associate's own name recognition. For example, a consulting firm may want to advertise the associate's name or resume in solicitations to future clients seeking new billable business. When a professional has directly reporting subordinates, when a professional serves as a corporate officer of his employer, or when the professional has power to make decisions which materially affect his employer's business strategy or which substantially affect the employer's customers, the professional then also discusses any (uncircumscribed) publicity-generating outside activities with his own management to make sure that he is not undermining his credibility as an objective manager of his subordinates' tasks and performance or damaging his objectivity in performing decision-making powers. There can sometimes occur extreme situations where public statements by an associate (particularly company-specific or "materially" industry-specific comments) can improperly affect his employer, even to the point of manipulating its stock price (and specific laws and SEC regulations sometimes become invoked). A self-employed professional who provides his own benefits and serves many customers is less likely to run into conflict of interest or loyalty (below) problems than a salaried professional.

Copyright law needs to be mentioned here. When an "employee" (whether contractor or salaried) creates an intellectual property for hire for his employer's benefit, the employer owns the copyright to the work. When the "employee" creates intellectual property for his own purposes using generic knowledge from the workplace but not detailed material that specifically belongs to his employer, the "employee," as a matter of law, owns his own work.

Another relevant concept is "right to publicity." If an "employee" becomes publicly prominent through his own intellectual property (a possibility much more likely since about 1997 because of the World Wide Web) then, in some cases, others have a right to report his employer's identity (without permission) even though the employee's own intellectual property (prudently) never specifically mentions the employer.


  A professional should be wary of working for an employer which he knows to be involved in harmful or immoral activities. This would include, perhaps, tobacco companies, law firms which he already knows to be involved in "ambulance chasing," telemarketing firms involved in scams, or entertainment company involved in child pornography. Before he accepts long-term salaried employment with benefits, the professional satisfies himself or herself that, within reason, the activities of his employer, industry and customers are fundamentally ethical. Even in the short run, the professional does not knowingly provide services to enterprises he or she knows to be illegal or immoral.

Once a professional accepts salaried employment, he must not, even under his own name, make public statements critical of his employer or of his employer's industry. But he does not have the "consitutional right" to high income from a company he knows to be involved in unethical activity. Workers are sometimes partially accountable for carrying out the orders of their bosses!

If a professional uses his own name ("publicity rights") for his own purposes (and does not let an employer use his personal name to get business) and is highly compensated (as a "key person"), he or she should consider becoming self-employed or an independent contractor after a reasonable period of time

A particular problem can arise with "fraternal" companies - that is, companies identified publicly by a particular group of "targeted" customers who themselves have unusual cultural biases, behaviors or political vulnerabilities. Members of various religious denominations or organizations, cultural fraternities, minority groups, labor unions, law enforcement, or the armed forces would be targeted customers; persons on public assistance might be targeted customers; on the other hand, owners of personal computers would not be so regarded. A salaried employee of such a company should not, under his own name even when outside of work, criticize his targeted customers. This would amount to a "breach of loyalty" which in extreme circumstances could present legal or diligence problems for the employer. A "targeted customer" situation may well be resolved or relieved when a fraternal company is bought by a larger company with more diversified customers if the acquiring company integrates operations. A consultant (who supplies his own benefits or who works intermittently with many different customer groups) would not be affected by this rule (because the employer's customer are no longer his own customers).

This discussion may have particular application to gay and lesbian professionals. Right now, publicly or politically active gay and lesbian professionals should not seek salaried employment closely associated with certain "fundamentalist" religious groups, cultural groups like the Boy Scouts, or the Defense Department, to the extent that these groups continue to advocate public positions and policies that maintain gays and lesbians to be "morally inferior."

Employer Responsibilities

Employers of salaried professionals (especially those defined as "exempt" under the Fair Labor Standards Act) have certain moral responsibilities (to say the least) outside of those already required by federal and state civil rights laws.

The most important responsibility is to fully disclose to new employees or associates any unusual expectations that could reasonably affect the associate's family life or other activities outside the workplace.

Furthermore, while employers are appreciative of associate efforts to tool themselves at their own expense, employers should provide computer hardware for take-home on-call support when access to production data may be required, in order that full custody of private or sensitive data is maintained.

Both employers and their associates tend to take a pragmatic attitude towards workplace ethics: "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Yet, all of these principles concern the underlying problem, of earning what is rightfully one's own on the job and as the job fits the rest of one's life. Neglect of these principles has caused a lot of turmoil that is usually blamed on corporate downsizings and "greedy" profit-taking.

Loyalty, after all, is a two-way street, even in a more "libertarian" world of spontaneous order. In today's world, professionals will look at all employment as finite and want to explore other opportunities, especially entrepreneurial ideas, on their own. Employers should carefully consider what they offer (stability, benefits, creative opportunity) in return for the loyalty that they expect. In some cases, employers may want to consider offering additional job security (including increased severance guarantees) to certain core "key person" or management (salaried, exempt) associates in exchange for agreement that these associates not seek income or commercial publicity rights outside of the salaried workplace.

Public Policy

These standards of conduct may indeed sound like a "perfect world" scenario. When one considers that, subject to legislated anti-trust limits, corporate employers get bought by competitors all the time, the commonly accepted and proposed limits on associate conduct seem a bit unfair. Indeed, consider that some professionals must sign "non-compete" agreements not to work for competitors after either resignation or termination for cause. But much of this "unfairness" is relieved if professionals are freer (given public policy) to contract and work (legally) "for themselves."

At the very least, self-employed persons should be allowed to use "pre-tax" dollars in purchasing health insurance, just as are salaried employees. Furthermore, social security and Medicare should gradually become privatized (with individual accounts and medical savings accounts). These changes would encourage people with multiple (but possibly conflicting) interests to become and remain self-employed and to spread their services among many corporate customers.


Copyright 1998 by Bill Boushka and High Productivity Publishing