Promoting Ethical Behavior in Information Technology Teams

In business, just as in life, it pays to do the right thing. Photo by  Charles Forerunner  on  Unsplash

In business, just as in life, it pays to do the right thing. Photo by Charles Forerunner on Unsplash

In life, the key to good decision-making relies heavily on the ability to determine the right choice from the wrong one.  In this regard, business is no different.  In today’s economy, a company’s capacity to behave ethically and operate in a socially responsible manner is critical to its long-term success.  No longer is it sufficient to merely remain profitable; with the advent of the internet and the associated improvement to communication, companies are often also measured on their overall social impact.  For this reason, it is imperative that businesses, and their IT departments in particular, understand the importance of ethics in the workplace. 

Defining Ethics, Morals, and Laws

Ethics can be defined as the set of values of right and wrong that individuals use to make decisions within society (Laudon & Laudon, 2016).  While they may be closely related, ethics are not synonymous with morals and laws.  In fact, morals refer to one’s personal beliefs about right and wrong, while laws are a system of enforced rules that govern what an individual can and cannot do (Reynolds, 2014).  Further confusing matters is that ethics, morals, and laws may actually contradict one another; for example, while a society’s ethics may hold that driving five to ten miles over the speed limit is acceptable, and an individual’s morals may align with this societal ethic, the law very clearly mandates that the act is wrong within a given societal context.  Due to this complexity, IT teams must remain vigilant in encouraging the desired ethical behaviors, while assisting team members in avoiding pitfalls and slippery slopes.

Is speeding wrong? Hard to say, but we still have to follow the law.

Is speeding wrong? Hard to say, but we still have to follow the law.

Promoting Ethical Behavior

 As mentioned above, ethics, morals, and laws play a role in all aspects of business – including information management.  Employees tasked with managing information through the use of technology are given levels of access much higher than others in the organization.  In many cases, the IT/IS department holds the “keys to the kingdom”, so to speak.  With these additional capabilities comes an added responsibility to behave in a moral and ethical manner; IT/IS employees must maintain both their personal integrity, as well as the integrity of the data they have been asked to protect.  For this reason, it is critical that businesses and the managers responsible for Information Technology operations cultivate a culture promoting ethical behavior.  Perhaps the most effective tool an IT manager has in promoting ethical behavior are their own actions.  By serving as an example of integrity, IT managers can effectively model the desired ethical behavior.  Furthermore, IT managers should make it clear that ethical behavior is the norm and provide team training on the difference between ethical and unethical behavior.  They may also provide a method for team members to report and discuss observed behavior that may be less than ethical.

Strive for greatness in acting with integrity

Strive for greatness in acting with integrity

Ethical Pitfalls and Creating an Ethical Workplace

A company’s culture plays a large part in the formulation and manifestation of ethical behavior within its employees and whether or not they succumb to the ethical pitfalls they face every day.  For example, consider a scenario where an employee from Company A sells trade secrets and/or products to Company B.   Initially, it is easy to see that this would be unethical.  Generally speaking, under no circumstances would it be considered acceptable to steal protected intellectual property and sell it to a competitor.  With that said, if Company A has bred a culture of ultra-competition and a “win at all costs” mentality, then perhaps its employees may not consider selling a trade secret as being unethical.  In fact, they may fault Company A for not protecting its assets or even ridicule them for trusting their employees.

To prevent a culture that fosters unethical behavior such as the example above, IT departments should implement a code of ethics and manage their information systems using a model based on the ACTIVE framework.  The ACTIVE framework is a set of ethics guidelines intended to highlight six important areas:  Autonomy, Community, Transparency, Identity, Value, and Empathy (McBride, 2014).  A key outcome of utilizing an ACTIVE approach is that it leads employees to question the ethics guiding both their professionalism and their interaction with others.  By confronting employees with ethical questions prior to the decision-making point, an ACTIVE system promotes reflection.  Upon reflection, and with the proper encouragement from leadership, employees will become empowered to make the right choice within the context of the cultural and systemic norms established by their place of employment.

Read more about the ACTIVE framework and download a copy of the guidelines here:

Ethics and Integrity Make for Happy IT Employees!

Ethics and Integrity Make for Happy IT Employees!


Laudon, K. C., & Laudon, J. P. (2016). Management information systems: Managing the digital firm.

McBride, N. K. (2014). ACTIVE ethics: An information systems ethics for the internet age. Journal of Information, Communication & Ethics in Society, 12(1), 21-44.

Reynolds, G. W. (2014). Ethics in Information Technology (5th Ed.).

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