Sunday, May 07, 2006

Pers: Ethics of being incognito at the coalface

Coalface ethics:

The story goes that a bloke who was appointed State Director spent his first week on the job incognito at a local office as a junior. The intention was apparently to get a feel for things at the coalface. That’s laudable, but is it ethical?

I don’t think it is, despite disagreement from two people whose opinions I respect.

My problem is with the undercover aspect of the exercise. It is true that if people knew who he was, they would treat him differently, and he would not get as true an idea how it was on the ground. The value of the operation would certainly be diminished.

But I believe ethics is not just about intentions, and it’s not just about doing the right thing. It’s important to be seen to be doing the right thing. Motivation, and what is done with the information gained, is an individual matter. Some people will be beyond reproach in the matter, but certainly not all. Yet ethics is about fair dealing with other people, and private intentions are not open to all. That has only an incidental relationship to how the dealing is received by other people. You can have good intentions, but how can you prove it except by being seen to be above board?

Further, there is no guarantee that information gleaned during that week will not and can not be used in some way against some of the individuals at the local office. In the situation in question, the regional office was located with the local office, and the State Director would conceivably have future dealings with the senior management there. In mitigation, the reporting lines were not direct (local offices’ reported through to the national office, but not via the State Office). The dilemma is murkier here, but for my money, that’s not really arm’s length enough to ensure that a) nobody would be personally impacted by the internship, and b) this is seen to be so. There’s still scope, for example, for the State Director to subsequently bring pressure to affect someone’s career – due in some way to confidences received, slights perceived, etc.

Am I splitting hairs? Comments welcome.

PS Australia’s public broadcaster ABC has a news radio station - Newsradio. Weeknights at 10pm, it gets a feed of All Things Considered, the current affairs programme from US public broadcaster NPR. They have a weekly feature in which an ethicist responds to listeners’ dilemmas. Although he sounds really easy-going, his advice is fairly strict - within a practical, day-to-day framework. Worth a listen; it helps tune up one’s sense of ethics, no matter how finely-honed already.

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