Monday, November 06, 2006


After reading this week's column (The Right Thing: FOR WHOSE EYES ONLY?) in the Charlotte Observer, reader Ralph Lowrance of Charlotte, wrote me:

Mr. Seglin:

I read with interest your comments about whether someone should look at a document, inadvertently left on his desk or on a copier, which showed confidential information. In short, you said that looking at confidential information is "tantamount to theft."

A recent column by your colleague Randy Cohen defended not only looking at confidential information (the salaries of all employees, in this case), but also advocated disseminating the information to everyone in the company.

In a future column, would you reconcile your position with his?

Thank you.

Ralph Lowrance
Charlotte, NC

The column by Mr. Cohen that Mr. Lowrance refers to appears at

Salary Exposure - New York Times

As for reconciliation, in this instance, Mr. Cohen and I disagree on the appropriate ethical response to the situation and I continue to maintain, as I did in my column, that it is inappropriate to take advantage of confidential information that you have inadvertently received.

I encourage other readers to read both columns and to weigh in.


Anonymous said...

Randy Cohen is an a**.

Granted, his article was more about the concept of sharing salary info even if it requires guerilla tactics, rather than the theoretical conundrum of whether to take advantage of a colleague's gaffe of leaving something at the printer.

Reasonable people could agree or disagree about his contention that more info about salary rates is good for the office.

But I think that when it comes down to the more essential question of what to do with information that has fallen into your lap, Cohen, as is his wont, shows his true colors.

I'm with Seglin all the way with this one. Sharing such information might be fun, and it might be politically useful, and it might make for great gossip, but it is a form of theft and can not be squared, ethically.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Cohen flunks Ethics 101 on this case. Unless he has inadvertenly discovered something harmful or illegal, he should not share it with others and should make an effort to return it to its owner.

As an aside, and because the issue of other employee salaries is always a "juicy" topic, I'm reminded of the well-respected John Young's story (Young took over CEO job at Hewlett Packard from Bil Hewlittl and David Packard): He got so tired of hearing about the voyeuristic quest for knowledge of other employee salaries, he had a list of ALL HP salaries posted on HP bulletin boards. End of problem.

Jan Bohren
Mercy College

Anonymous said...


I agree with you. I remember talking to an oil executive who was new in Calgary. We were discussing ethical values and he shared with me how soon after he
arrived in the city a memo appeared on his desk. -- The memo contained sensitive data related to one of his company's competitors. He knew immediately that whoever left the memo did not come by it honestly. He said to me, "I had three choices: I could tear it up immediately and not tell anyone about it; I could keep
it and use it; or I could take it to the competitor and tell him how it came to me. I chose the third
option and never regretted it."

Fr. Max Oliva, S.J.
"Spiritual Coach"

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

The questions of whether or not to look at a "confindential" document and the question of what to do with it are quite separate.

and it is not "theft" per Se. Just because someone putd the word "confidential" on something does not GOVE it value, and it may or may not HAVE value. This is entirely context sensitive.

In some contexts, the person who reveals "secret" imformation is a hero.

There is no simple answer to the question in the abstract.

I am not sure why this society, or at least statements I read, seem to indicate a desire for simple asnwers to complex-- or any-- quesions. sometimes the desire to make a complex situation seem simple is arguably unethical.

I would take the context into account and "go with my gut."

It has never failed me. Would we would all acknowledge this guidance (our "gut") exists and use it more.