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IT Ethics


The birth and impact of ethics and social responsibility are now being integrated into many areas of business. Many companies realize that practicing good ethics and social responsibility may bring many opportunities and advantages. Business ethics defines how a company integrates core human values, such as honesty, trust, honor, morality, respect and fairness, into its policies, practices, and decision-making.

Today, many consumers all over the world believe that companies should do more than focus on making a profit, paying taxes, providing the employment and obeying all laws. Such activities of many activators as pressing the corporations and damaging their reputation through protests have resulted in ethics officers, who once focused solely on the legal compliance, now find themselves answering questions about bioethics, privacy, child labor, and CEO compensation. Business ethics also plays an important role in strengthening the employee commitment and boosting the financial performance. Studies showed that firms asking an explicit commitment to the ethics code provide more than twice the value to shareholders than companies that do not. Utterly, business ethics has become an extremely valuable component of modern business that all companies and trade organizations must take into account, ponder and honor.

With the development of informational technologies, the companies’ performance became dependent on the proper utilization of IT software and technological innovations. This has led to the development of the new type of business ethics – IT ethics. This paper intends to examine the ethical practices and methods of its implementation into IT organizations.

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The Meaning of Ethical Practices

Ultimately, the code of ethics is simply a combination of the rules and policies created to guide the conduct of members of a particular organization or profession. Many prosperous half-thousand services, firms and companies have a written ethics code. Various companies and trade associations expect their employees to follow these written rules, and without a written agreement, no one can get a position within an organization. However, there are minimum two problems with these ethical codes. First of all, written policies are frequently rather vague and too general and turn out to be of little or no value. Second, the code of ethics is always incomplete, and it cannot serve as a reliable guide to employees’ moral standards. For writers of such codes, it is literally impossible to imagine all possible ethical dilemmas.

In the real business world, however, ethics is a set of unwritten (and sometimes written) laws and principles. The basic idea of ethics whirls around right vs. wrong, moral vs. immoral, and good vs. bad. In the majority of situations, stating whether the action or attitude is good or bad is extremely difficult. When the situation is “black” or “white”, there is no investigation or dilemma, because it is plain to see motives and attitudes. The real science comes into play when the situation is within this uncertain “gray” area, where it is difficult to state firmly whether the situation is good or bad. Since it is sometimes very hard to tell a morally right action from a morally wrong one, plus the ethical code of the institution or organization cannot help due to the scarce variety of covered situations, some of the real abusers and wrongdoers stay concealed in the shade. However, it is very easy to see whether a person is moral or not by his or her general attitude and the way the person communicates with other members of the organization or team. However, for one person and from a particular point of view, a situation may look absolutely objective and correct, while from the other perspective, the very same situation may seem immoral, dishonest or even cruel. In order to deal correctly with an ethical dilemma, certain questions have to be asked. It is essential to determine whether the issue is legal, whether it is going to harm any people within the organization, and whether it is moral from the perspective of the manager. Managers should bear this concept in their mind to approach correctly ethical dilemmas within the company. The task of a successful manager is anticipating all possible controversial outcomes and frictions, writing the code of ethics for the organization and, what is most important, revising it whenever necessary. Revising is crucial because there is no one complete or perfect code of ethics; it is impossible to anticipate everything.

Ethics can have a positive impact on the group effectiveness. For example, one rule of the code is to treat colleagues with respect and dignity. Management must communicate the seriousness of the organization’s expectations for the ethical conduct and their own personal support of these expectations. Ethical management includes both fostering a work environment that encourages employees to express their concerns or seek for assistance any other way if encountered with potentially comprising situations and supporting those, who speak out.

Integration of Ethical Practices into the IT Organization

Modern organizations usually develop a variety of technologies for the information management. Such technologies consist of systems for storing, duplicating, validating, communicating and manipulating the flow of digital information. These systems are composed of man-made objects such as hardware devices or software products (Turilli & Floridi, 2009). The problem of embedding ethics into the software design is enormous and relates to several disciplines such as software and requirement engineering, law, normative ethics, information ethics and sociology (Friedman, Kahn, & Borning, 2002; Turilli, 2008). From a theoretical standpoint, it is necessary to understand what it means to consider ethics in the context of software engineering. Ultimately, such analysis has to be grounded on phenomenological investigations to facilitate the integration into the practice of software design. Alongside such investigations, it is necessary to develop specific formal tools that make it feasible to shift from the informal language, used to investigate ethical requirements, to formal aspects of the software development. According to Turilli (2007), a method has been proposed for the translation of ethical principles into preconditions for the execution of the artifact’s operations. The first step of the proposed translation method is the adoption of descriptive qualitative techniques for eliciting the ethical requirements relevant to the environment, in which the computational artifact will be deployed. In the second step, these ethical requirements are translated into the design specification by means of a conceptual tool that has been called ‘control closure’. Such a tool can be readily formalized so as to be compatible with the software development practice (Sanders & Turilli, 2007).

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Examples of Ethical Practices in IT Organizations

Ethical practices in business have been a subject of many research studies. A book by Elizabeth Buchanan and Katherine Henderson Case Studies in Library and Information Science Ethics (2009) includes a number of specific case studies related to information science ethics. In order to examine these case studies, the authors introduce several theories of ethical thinking to the reader. They divide them into four categories: utility-based, duty-based, justice-based, and character-based theories (Buchanan & Henderson, 2009). The book focuses on practical scenarios and examples that help to consider deep ethical issues in practice.

For instance, the research on the practice of networking in relation to business ethics revealed that three types of benefits are derived from networks: competitive developments through virtual integration, in which organizations remain flexible and small, while projecting size to the market; intellectual developments through the sharing of intellectual capital with a diverse network of organizations in many fields; and ideological developments through an ideological network of like-minded individuals, by which companies can prevent the co-opting of the original purpose of fair trade (Davies, 2009; Buchanan & Henderson, 2009).

Utilitarian networking is made with the intention of obtaining benefits related to economic advantages, obtaining power, safety or protection, and so on. Networking may be a practice to find jobs, clients, and contracts, to be promoted faster and at a younger age, get advice in difficult situations, or acquire useful information and resources. Managers can practice networking to maintain a strong customer relationship, since it is cheaper to keep an old customer than to get a new one.

According to Weaver, Trevino and Colhram (1999), formal corporate ethics programs are very useful in creating a positive ethical climate in the organization and typically include some or all of the following elements:

  • formal codes of ethics, which present the company’s expectations regarding this question;
  • ethics committees that develop ethics policies, evaluate actions of the company or employee and/or investigate and adjudicate policy violations;
  • ethics communication systems providing a means for employees to report abuses or obtain guidance;
  • ethics officers, who coordinate policies, provide ethics education, or investigate allegations;
  • ethics training programs aimed at helping employees to recognize and respond to the ethical issues;
  • disciplinary processes to address unethical behavior.

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Evaluation of the Integration of Ethical Practices into an IT Organization

Among different factors of the organizational ethical climate, written and unwritten codes of ethics have a considerable influence on institutionalizing ethics in organizations. They serve three major purposes in organizations, namely: a) demonstrating a concern for ethics by the organization, b) transmitting ethical values of the organization to its members and c) influencing the ethical behavior of employees. The research suggests that employees must be familiar with the code’s contents before it impacts their ethical awareness and behavior (Dean, 1992). They have also empirically proved that among managers, the efficiency of the codes of ethics is positively related to the degree of familiarity with the code and ethical climate, as well as the code’s perceived usefulness. Therefore, the ethical code of conduct plays a crucial role in establishing a positive ethical climate in organizations. Being aware of the ethical code of conduct would help employees and managers to create a sufficient awareness of the ethical issues and minimize ambiguities in decision-making situations.

The expectations of a socially responsible behavior and ethical business practices for organizations have been consistently increasing over the last decade. Though ethical practices may not lead to immediate and tangible results, in the long-run, they help to sustain the society’s benevolence and, thus, maintain a positive image among its members. The present study highlights the interactive effect of different variables on the ethical decision-making and behavior and, thus, insists on a holistic approach to understand them better. Organizational variables, like responsibility, ethical climate, peer influence, and organizational code of conduct, are deeply interconnected with each other and should be a prior focus for managers’ better understanding of their effect on the ethical decision-making and behavior. The problem of assessing the ethical implications of how disclosed information is utilized by individuals in their decision-making processes should be the next stage in research on ethical practices in IT organizations.