Monday, July 6, 2009

The Liability of Ethics in Privacy

In these modern times, we have been introduced more and more to a concept of “right to privacy.” The concept has become very institutionalized in our laws and in business practices. Financial institutions are required by law to publicize their privacy policies. Websites that do e-commerce, especially with credit cards, are required to publicly state their privacy policy. Any organization that collects personal information is required to publish a privacy statement explaining how the information they collect is used. The goal of the privacy laws and policies is obviously to protect individuals from being exploited, or to prevent discrimination against individuals.

Privacy laws and ethics enters into all aspects of our lives. Employers are particularly sensitive to privacy issues, partly because some employers have suffered very expensive lawsuits when they have been lax in protecting the privacy of ex-employees.

Now, here's the thing. Privacy can be a two-edged sword. While it is designed to protect some individuals, the enforcement of privacy can become a true liability to the party that is committed to protect the privacy of another.

Before I continue with an example, I want you to know that what follows is a fictional creation and I personally do not know any sales people with the name of Barry. The situation is a fictionalized representation of a scenario that can happen in any organization.

Let's say a hypothetical company had a salesman, named Barry, that worked very hard, and developed a network of contacts with many organizations. This was all a plus for this sales organization. But Barry had a dark side. Barry often used information he gained in his networking activity selectively to make himself appear to be more important than he was. Not that he had out right lied, but he ordered partial truths in such a way that it led the clients and associates to erroneous conclusions. In this manner, he had, on several occasions, misrepresented himself to other organizations using facts that were only partially true. Other sales staff started complaining that Barry had interrupted conversations with clients and made statements that contradicted what the client had just been told, adding confusion to the conversation, undermining the client confidence in the sales person, and finally handicapping the ability of the salesman to close the sale. Other good sales staff began to leave the company to get away from this interfering salesman. Some just refused to attempt to help a customer if Barry was in the area.

Complaints started coming in from the customers, as well. Some customers were confused about Barry's position and authority in the company. Some customers learned that Barry was manipulating them with partial truths and stopped doing business with the company altogether. On one occasion, the sales manager directed Barry to work with a client and told him specifically how to handle the client. Barry disobeyed the sales manager and not only lost the sale, but caused the customer go away with hard feelings.

The sales manager talked to Barry many times to no avail, hearing excuses like, “they misunderstood me”, and “I only want the best for the company.” Finally, the sales manager had to fire Barry. There was no one incident that in itself (other than the incident where insubordination was involved) actually warranted Barry's dismissal. But, the cumulative affect of the incidents became a burden to the company. The liability had come to outweigh any good Barry was capable of doing.

Now, Barry goes about spreading rumors about his ex-employer and ex-associates. He says he was fired because he “knew too much,” and tells other stories with half truths cleverly designed to bring suspicion on the company. He tells others that many employees are leaving the company, casting doubt in the way of old clients and potential clients. Meanwhile, the employer can only say, “Barry was released from the position for cause. Because of our commitment to privacy we won't discuss the details of the dismissal.” Some employers today don't even say that much. They will say something like, “Barry worked here, and now he doesn't.” No matter what, the company continues to shoulder the burden of Barry's rants, while steadfastly keeping and honoring the principles of Barry's right to privacy.

In an effort to show itself as being a company of integrity and principle, it has to shoulder the liability of Barry's continued deceptive rants. However, in the eye of the public there is a huge question concerning the integrity of a company that would fire an individual with such talent for which Barry is recognized.

At the same time, the general public can't see through Barry's veiled agenda to destroy his ex-employer. They cannot see that Barry has little regard for his own integrity, much less that of the company that once employed him. In fact, Barry's ultimate goal is to destroy his ex-employer.

Does this seem fair?

It isn't fair.

Life is not fair.

When you hear voices assaulting an ex-employer, or an ex-friend, for that matter, know that there are two sides to any story, and the one that “doth protest too much” may be the one that is not bound by ethics and may also be the one that lacks integrity. In any case, before one takes any action or position based on what is said by any departed associate, it is wise to investigate the situation thoroughly, and also know that the ex-employer may be suffering the liability of protecting the privacy of the very person that attacks it.

Be Peace.

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