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Sunday, March 30, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: THE STORY OF SOMEONE ELSE'S LIFE

In a classic good-news/bad-news report, a recent survey suggests that 13 percent of teenagers believe that it's sometimes necessary, and therefore acceptable, to plagiarize schoolwork.

While the survey on teen ethics, which was conducted by Junior Achievement and Deloitte and involved 13-to-18-year-olds, did suggest that a reassuring 84 percent of teens firmly believe that it is never OK to plagiarize, it's still alarming that 13 percent felt that it was not only necessary but also justifiable.

The pressure is on high-school students to succeed, in short, and sometimes they use whatever means are available.

A large part of the pressure comes, no doubt, from wanting to put the best face on an academic record that will be presented to prospective colleges. Sadly, for some that best face may be built on a lie.

These proclivities are not limited to American teenagers. I was not surprised when I received an e-mail several months ago from a young woman teaching English in Bangkok. She had started working for a company that, in addition to teaching teenagers English, helps them work on their college applications.

The whole process, she indicates, makes her uncomfortable.

"All essays start and end with my boss," she writes, explaining that he comes up with the essay topic, makes an outline and then basically writes half of each essay before it ever gets to the adviser and teenage student to work on.

That practice is troublesome enough, but my reader discovered that one girl's personal statement contained "several exaggerations and some outright lies." The adviser works with the girl, so she found herself having to ask her if the things detailed in her college application essay actually happened.

"The sad thing is that this girl is really cool," she writes, and her true story would provide ample material to fill a winning essay.

My reader knows that the process is completely unethical, of course, and she's beginning to feel like a traitor to the educational values she holds dear. She's unsure, however, of what response would be appropriate.

"Do I need to quit completely?," she asks. "Or just quit working on college applications? I don't know."

This is, of course, a classic ethics quandary: Is it acceptable, or even possible, to ethically work for a company that you know to be unethical, even if your specific area of work is handled ethically?

The guy who runs the counseling service should be ashamed. It's unconscionable that he's writing essays for these students. He's taking their money while teaching them that dishonesty is the best route to college. If they have the ability to write an honest essay that will make the grade, he's depriving them of the chance to prove that to themselves. If they don't have that ability, he's helping them get into a college at which they'll probably be out of their depth.

In short, he's doing no favors for anyone but himself. Instead of embracing the lie-filled essay "written" by her daughter, the mother should have fired the company on the spot.

It may be possible to ethically work for a company that is incidentally engaged in unethical conduct, but not when the company is built -- as this one is -- on an unethical base. There's no getting clean by staying on in a different role at a business that is so far off any moral course. Regardless of whether or not the company's practices are technically illegal, by working there my reader was a moral accessory to a fraud.

The right thing, I would have told the young adviser, is to leave. As it happens, her discomfort caused her to reach the same conclusion even before I was able to offer my advice.

She found a job teaching preschool kids, where I trust that she is working to instill the value of honesty in her young charges.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey, another question from someone who finds fault with the ethics of their employer. If you work for someone who asks you to do something unethical, such as write material for a student, and you cannot in good conscience participate in such conduct, then what is preventing you, the employee, from either confronting your boss about this (a stupid act, which will obviously cost you your job), or stand up for your ethical beliefs and quit the job. My only experience is conduct of businesses in the U.S., so I would think someone living in Thailand might be taking a chance of getting in some kind of political or criminal conduct for finding fault with their boss, so the best thing for this person to do would be to keep her mouth shut or find another job. I would not think it would be healthy for her to start a ruckus over ethics in a foreign country.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC