If someone shreds a file but we still have a backup copy, has an unethical corporate act taken place? This isn’t a rhetorical question; it’s a perspective intended to keep our organizations out of the courts and possibly financial insolvency.

Corporate ethics are as much a corporate asset as are buildings, information, and intellectual property. Lose them, even through the rogue acts of a handful of employees, and we potentially lose the entire organization. Witness the recent implosion of a prominent accounting firm. Even before the case got to court and a legal decision was handed down, customers lost both faith and trust in the company, and fled in droves. The result? More than 6,000 people were laid off.

The lesson? Ethical issues matter to both management and staff. Any one of those 6,000+ individuals will tell you so. Even the mere perception of an unethical act can collapse our organizations.

Differing Views Of Ethics

What are ethics? The simplistic answer is to suggest that Ethics are nothing more than the decisions we make regarding what’s right and what’s wrong. Sounds simple enough, yet if we sit any two people down to discuss ethical situations, we’ll find enough disagreement to raise tempers and voices.

Ethical issues are never simple. We each have a different way of looking at the world depending on where and how we were brought up, where we’re doing business, and how we decide to balance one issue against the other. We do not all have the same ethical standards. To assume we do, creates more problems than it solves. Without a common standard we will steer our actions by our own moral compass.

The first step towards a consistent ethical environment is to publish an organizational code of ethics. If we want people to act in a consistent ethical manner, then we must make a significant effort to communicate the standards against which they’ll be held accountable. (There are thousands of examples of codes of ethics publicly available on the Internet)

That done, the next step is to implement defences against attempts to violate the code of ethics. While such a defensive will never be 100 percent effective, it could serve to make the mere shredding of some documents a less than worthy news item.

There is one thing that keeps most of us on the ethical straight and narrow path. It’s the question, “will we get caught?”

This view could be categorized as either cynical, or realistic. Either way, this human failing serves well to explain the prevalence of software theft.

IRM To The Rescue

Any competent information resource management (IRM) system has the ability to take advantage of this flaw in human nature. Big Brother should always be watching, and be known to be watching and creating an audit trail for our

every action, from the smallest field modification to a file erasure. This alone goes a great distance to ensuring ‘ethical behaviour’.

Those audit trails pose some interesting ‘data ownership’ issues. It’s obvious that the organizational entity owns all data, but the responsibilities of ownership are relegated to various functions within the organization. For example: the sales department ‘owns’ sales information, which in turn, is managed by IRM.

Authorized individuals within the sales department could conceivably decide to erase an account, and all record of that account, from the active system.

What they cannot do is erase the audit trail of that erasure. Nor can they delete the corresponding cycle of backups, nor the permanent archival data storage. This type of historical data is not owned or accessible by the sales function.

Departmental ownership extends to the data itself and not to the history of that data, nor the history ‘owned’ by IRM; they are the data guardians for the period required by law.

The ethics of the organization are uniquely protected if this type of deep erasure is either impossible or extremely complicated and time consuming. If IRM data storage processes are properly installed and functional, it does not matter if a rogue analyst shreds a single or a thousand documents. Intelligent and diligent IRM systems can prevent most, if not all, incidents of ethical breach of conduct.

Peter de Jager is a speaker and consultant on management issues relating to Managing the Future. Contact him at pdejager@technobility.com.

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