Tom Confronts an Ethics Breach

By Cutler, Gale | Research-Technology Management, November-December 2004 | Go to article overview

Tom Confronts an Ethics Breach


Cutler, Gale, Research-Technology Management


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

"Tom Evers," XYZ Corporation's research VP, was poring over the literature on professional ethics and ethical transgressions in industry that the company librarian had assembled for him. Tom had requested the material after reading that such transgressions were becoming more widespread and that dishonesty had even crept into industrial R&D departments. But now it was an article by Professor Robert Cialdini and associates in the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University that particularly worried him (1).

The article asserted that organizational dishonesty was alarmingly prevalent and that its impact was far-reaching. "Reports of malfeasance or criminal conduct in corporate governance, accounting practices, regulatory evasions, securities transactions, advertising misrepresentations, and so on have become all too commonplace," the article said. "No wonder that business schools across the country have been rushing to design and introduce courses that emphasize a subject traditionally given short shrift: ethics."

Cialdini's article continued, "In spite of the assortment of arguments contending that "ethics pays," the number and extent of recent transgressions suggest that a significant portion of the business world has yet to be persuaded." More worrisome, the article went on, "Dishonesty is a trait that, when discovered in one branch of a company is immediately perceived to be underlying the behaviors across other domains."

Nevertheless, Tom couldn't believe anyone in XYZ Research was guilty of unethical conduct, and he had certainly not observed anything that appeared unethical or dishonest.

Questionable Practices

What Tom didn't know, unfortunately, was that he had a department in which the manager was struggling to get control of certain practices he found objectionable and perhaps unethical. "Roger Preston" was the new manager of the Materials Science Department at XYZ Research, which he had recently joined after a number of years as a professor in the Materials Science Department at the State University. There, he had included case studies of ethical problems in most of his courses and was personally committed to making sure that every employee in his department behaved ethically. Not so his predecessor as XYZ department manager, "Joe Ferguson," who had left Research to take a management position in one of the firm's manufacturing divisions. Joe had been an easy-going manager whose only concern was to "get the work done." As Roger was to discover, some questionable practices had been allowed to develop in the department.

Roger's first alarm rang when three senior engineers who had attended a materials symposium in New York City submitted their expense accounts. The reports were practically identical and indicated a level of expenditure that Roger found exorbitant. Summoning the men to his office, it took him only a few minutes to find out that the expense accounts had been "padded"--and generously. The men claimed such expense reporting had become commonplace in the department--that Joe had been aware of it and they considered it justified because recent salary increases had been less than expected. The men told Roger that they saw no harm in using this method occasionally to supplement their pay a little.

"This practice is totally unethical--it's a form of stealing," Roger replied angrily, ordering them to stop it immediately or face punitive action. He then put out a department-wide memo that expense reporting must be honest and accurate.

Charging the Inactive Project

Greatly disturbed, Roger began to look closely at departmental operations to see if there were other instances of improper conduct. …

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