Sunday, December 27, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: THE INSIDE WORD GETS OUT

A reader in New York recently began working for a major media company. Like most big companies, he reports, his company is "filled with political intrigue and behind-the-scenes maneuvering."

My reader recently discovered a Web site that appears to be operated by current or former employees of his company. It explores the workings of his company in great detail and, while almost all of the posters to the site do so anonymously, "they clearly know the people and issues they're writing about firsthand."

In some cases, my reader believes, the information on the Web site might be useful to him in his career with the company. In all cases, however, he finds the Web site fascinating.

"It gives you the story behind decisions that sometimes seem unexplainable," he says, "and a much better idea of what's going to happen in the future than the official releases by the company."

The Web site can be viewed by the general public, including the company's competitors. It's filled with accounts of confidential meetings and personal criticism of "people who can't answer back."

"While most of the stuff I saw there I knew to be true from my own experience," my reader writes, "there's really no way to be sure if a given bit of information is legit."

Still, my reader has been advised by colleagues that almost everybody in the company visits the Web site regularly and that senior management is well aware of it and takes advantage of its information.

"To not read it is to handcuff yourself within the company," one of my reader's colleagues told him.

While intrigued, however, my reader is not sure about the ethics of the situation.

On the one hand, he recognizes that the Web site is akin to water-cooler talk at work.

"This is stuff that employees used to say to each other at a bar after work," he writes. "The only thing that's new is the wide scope of it, via the Internet. But that feels like a big difference to me."

His company's thorough ethics guidelines don't address the situation at all, so he's torn.

"Is it ethical to even read the postings on the site?" he asks. "Is it ethical to let them influence the way I go about my job? Is it unethical for people to post there and, if so, does that make reading it unethical?"

Having examined the Web site myself, I think there's nothing wrong with my reader reading the material there and using it for whatever purposes he may find helpful.

If the site's posters were stealing proprietary information - internal financials, human-resources documents and so on - then they would have crossed an ethical line, not to mention a legal one. But if their postings are based on their own experiences, as my inspection of the site suggests, it seems fair play for them to raise these issues on the site. One man's food for thought may be another man's gossip, but there's nothing fundamentally wrong with mentioning it over the water cooler ... or over the Internet.

If it's ethically acceptable for them to make the postings, there is nothing unethical about my reader reading them, so long as he does so on his own time and weighs each one with a healthy dose of skepticism. If tempted to do some posting himself, he should bend over backward to make sure that nothing he posts could be construed as proprietary.

Whether he should let the site's postings influence the way he does his job is a question less of ethics than of common sense. As he points out, there is no way to be sure how much of the information is legitimate. I'd advise him to confirm anything he finds there with more reliable sources before he hangs his career on it.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I can only read this account and wonder why the questioner has any ethical problem with a web site that is useful to him and is known to his employer. Are people who work in media so suspicious of the outside world, even a part of the outside that is as described and contains nothing unethical, but is actually extremely useful? I would think that anything he could become familiar with at this blog that would help him in his job performance or of interest in his general education would be a welcome part of his outside interests.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

Anonymous said...

Brim over I to but I dream the collection should have more info then it has.

Anonymous said...

Well I acquiesce in but I dream the collection should secure more info then it has.

Is employer responsible for expense if I might leave?

Every couple of years, Lil (not her real name, but let's call her "Lil") has to renew her professional license with her s...