Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 37;   September 21, 2022: Online Ethics

Online Ethics

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The array of media for exchanging our thoughts in text has created new opportunities for acting unethically. Cyberbullying is one well-known example. But sending text is just one way to cross the line ethically. Here are some examples of alternatives.
A compass is like a code of ethics in that it provides a sense of direction

A compass is like a code of ethics in that it provides a sense of direction. Compasses distinguish North from South. Codes of ethics distinguish right from wrong.

Image by Christian Plass courtesy Pixabay.com.

Whether the medium is email, text, social, Teams, or any of the dozens of text exchange platforms, they are all vulnerable to unethical usage. Cyberbullying is probably the most famous of all unethical online text activities. And whether an abusive message is sent in response to abusive text, or sent to harass someone, or sent to exact revenge, or to push someone over the edge, abusive text is over the line.

But it's possible to act unethically by doing nothing at all. For example, what I call abusive silence is choosing not to respond to someone's message, or delaying a response intentionally, to offend or to harm that person. Abusive silence is over the line. It's the equivalent of listening to someone who's speaking to you face-to-face, and then turning your back and walking away. The telephone conversation equivalent is hanging up while someone is speaking to you.

Abusive It's possible to act unethically
by doing nothing at all
silence is common in cases of cyberbullying because it provides a means of isolating someone from organizational activity. One seriously unethical example of abusive silence arises when it's combined with lying. When questioned later about the reason for failing to respond to a message, the perpetrator says, "Goodness, so sorry, I never received your message. I wonder what happened."

And there are ways to cross the ethical line that have nothing to do with forms of textual abuse. Here are a few examples.

Flooding
Creating or executing any program intended to flood someone's inbox is unacceptable. This practice is rare in in-house communications, but less rare in the wider world. It is over the line.
Forwarding to harm the sender
Forwarding a message without the sender's permission or knowledge, with the expectation of harming the sender or those affiliated with the sender, is over the line.
Forwarding messages is sometimes done as a way of reporting an infraction. In these cases, the message forwarded is the evidence of infraction. If you feel compelled to report an infraction, be certain to alert the sender to the fact that you have reported the act.
Plagiarism and meta-plagiarism
Copying the words of another and presenting them as your own is plagiarism. It's unacceptable in the commercial realm. But because the identical act in the context of online text communication would likely go undetected, many feel that plagiarism in online text is acceptable. It might go undetected, but it is over the line — in email, text, or anywhere else.
Meta-plagiarism is copying the concepts (but not necessarily the words) of another and presenting them as your own. That is also over the line — in email, text, or anywhere else.
Fomenting panic
It is dangerous to forward a message that warns of dire electronic peril — new malware or a security flaw are examples — if the warning is unwarranted. It can cause people to take steps that harm themselves or their organizations. Before distributing such information, always either (a) validate the warning with a legitimate authority and reference that authority, or (b) include a disclaimer clearly stating that you are unable to evaluate the validity of the claims in the forwarded message.
Spreading malware
Taking any action, with intent, that results in spreading malware is unforgivable. And knowingly using electronic media in a way that spreads malware is also unforgivable. Forwarding an attachment that you received unsolicited from a third party, without first verifying that the attachment is safe, is an example of conduct that is over the line. Failing to defend your computer or device from attack and infestation by electronic malefactors is another example.

Last words

This catalog isn't exhaustive. In the realm of unethical behavior, people can be endlessly creative. To deter this behavior, make the people in your organization aware of the tactics. That awareness alone can reduce the incidence of these behaviors. Go to top Top  Next issue: The Illusion of Explanatory Depth  Next Issue

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Some risks and the plans for managing them are personnel-sensitive in the sense that disclosure can harm the enterprise or its people. Since most risk management plans are available to a broad internal audience, personnel-sensitive risks cannot be managed in the customary way. Why not?
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When I gain an important insight, or when I learn a lesson, I make a note. Example: If you're interested in changing how a social construct operates, knowing how it came to be the way it is can be much less useful than knowing what keeps it the way it is.

See also Ethics at Work and Workplace Bullying for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
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We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

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