CS373 Fall 2018: Regina Chen

The Ethical Software Engineer

The Suggestion Box

Your first job after graduation is system administrator for a 200 person privately held manufacturing company. The president/owner sends this message to the employees: "I want to encourage each of you to make comments to me about any facet of our operation you care to. Your response should be made through our anonymizer program so that your identity will not be disclosed" The president/owner finds one response saying: "This company sucks. The only way I find to retaliate for the way I have been treated is sabotage. Every tenth part I turn out is defective." The president/owner insists that you examine the computer usage records to determine the identity of the alleged saboteur. What should you do? You might want to make a declaration of a single course of action. If so, defend it. Why do you believe this is the only ethical response? You might believe that more information is required. What additional factors might influence how to respond ethically to this problem? Even if given much more information, you might be conflicted about how to respond. Discuss your conflicts but do not forget that, given the situation presented to you as the system administrator, you must do something. Even failing to decide is an action.

Course of Action

I would immediately refuse to expose the alleged saboteur. If the president/owner refuses to take "no" as an answer, then I would start searching for new opportunities at a company that values employee trust and privacy as much as I do. I cannot control whether or not the next system administrator exposes the alleged saboteur, but I can control my own actions, and I can act according to my own values. I could not continue to work at a company that will sacrifice employee privacy for the sake of business gain.


The president/owner had made it clear, in writing, that the comments would be anonymous and that the identities would not be exposed. The employees offering feedback are trusting this one characteristic of the system. By going back on his word, the president/owner would not only be breaching the employees' privacy, but also their trust. If the president/owner cares so little about these two values, then it will undoubtedly affect his day-to-day decisions, and these decisions will trickle downwards through the company. If I were to oblige and expose the individual, then the president/owner may believe that it would be okay to breach employee privacy in a future but similar situation. I would rather escape the hole while I still can rather than dig myself in deeper and deeper.


Even though I myself would be curious as to who would sabotage the company like this, it is not my responsibility to find out. There ought to be higher-ups who are in charge of the saboteur, and if every tenth part is indeed defective, then something is wrong somewhere in the process. Who is checking the parts? Who is managing the responder? Those individuals are playing a part in this as well. The person managing the employee is not doing a good job, especially since they are responsible for one-on-one meetings and keeping track of the employee's performance. If the person checking the parts that the employee produces has been systematically catching the defective parts, then that means that the sabotage is failing. However, if the defective parts are being shipped out, then the individual responsible for checking the parts is failing at his/her job as well. This aspect of the ethics question is difficult. By exposing the saboteur, the company could potentially improve the production process. However, by my refusing to expose him/her, the company may not notice the flaw until much later. Because of this, I would not know how to act. I would want to work for the good of the company, which would mean exposing the employee, yet it violates one of my core moral principles. However, disregarding this line of thought, I would still refuse the president/owner.


Before I leave the company in pursuit of more ethical workplaces, I would drop a comment in the "anonymized" feedback system saying that the president/owner was being unethical by insisting that I expose the alleged saboteur. Even if he finds out, he can't do anything to me.