Mike Receives a "Present"

By Cutler, Gale | Research-Technology Management, November/December 2001 | Go to article overview

Mike Receives a "Present"


Cutler, Gale, Research-Technology Management


THE HUMAN SIDE

The following hypothetical human resources problem has, like so many of its ilk, no "correct" answer. In order to help your colleagues deal with such a situation, please tell us how you would handle it. We'll print as many as space permits. The Editor.

"Boss, here's a present for you!" exclaimed "Todd Crane," as he tossed a bundle of computer paper on "Mike Hubbard's" desk. Mike was manager of mechanical engineering research for XYZ Corporation, and Todd was a recent college graduate and new hire who was assigned to Mike's department. Brilliant, superbly confident, brash, very much inclined to bend rules, and unconventional in much of his behavior, Todd had impressed everyone with his knowledge of the computer and the engineering computer applications he had developed.

As Todd left his office, Mike took a look at the computer output he had just been handed. He was shocked to discover he was looking at material from one of XYZ's competitors. Looking further, he recognized the plans for introducing a product with a new feature-one that XYZ was desperately hurrying to get to the market ahead of this competitor.

At this point, Mike realized that his possession of this material was very likely illegal and certainly unethical. He knew full well he should have nothing to do with the documents, but his curiosity got the better of him. As he scanned the documents he could tell that the competitor was clearly ahead of XYZ in the race to introduce this new feature, that it had solved a design problem troubling XYZ, and that it planned an aggressive pricing strategy for the new model. In short, the documents were a "gold mine" of information, and certainly information Mike had no right to possess.

The Amateur "Hacker"

Early the next day, Mike asked Todd to come to his office and immediately asked, "How did you get the computer runoff that you gave me yesterday?" Todd replied sheepishly, "I've always been an amateur computer 'hacker'-- had a lot of fun with it in college. Once I got the final exam for one of my classes from my prof's computer and shared it with my friends, of course. Certainly helped our grades!"

Todd went on, "One of my friends-a classmate-went to work in a competitor's lab. He told me how to get into their computer. He's doing materials testing and he was interested in my looking over his reports to see if I spotted any flaws in his work. But once I got into their computer I got curious and discovered their security was extremely poor and that I could look at about anything I wanted. What I gave you yesterday was fairly easy to get. Thought you'd like to see it. What else would you like me to get? I'm sure I could tell you how much salary your counterpart in their company is getting!"

A shocked Mike recognized that receiving competitive information in this way could change the whole culture of how R&D at XYZ operated. He scolded, "Todd, what you are doing is certainly illegal. I admit I scanned the stuff you gave me but have since shredded it. I've got to check with Legal, but what you did is probably grounds for dismissal. I insist that you confine your computer activities to our system!"

The Legal Counsel Listens

XYZ's legal cousel listened carefully to Mike and explained, "This situation has never come up. We really don't have a company policy or procedure to cover a situation like this-just felt it was never needed. But if you are knowingly using proprietary and confidential information-even if you found it on an airplane seat-I believe you have crossed the line into illegal territory. Intellectual property law defines "trade secret" broadly as almost any type of business information that derives economic value from not being generally known and whose confidentiality has been protected by reasonable measures. Illegal use of a "trade secret" is not without penalty. However, since you've shredded the material and don't plan to use it-I assume you don't-maybe we should just put a reprimand in Todd's personnel file and tell him no more of this hacking into our competitor's system. …

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