Ethics 101 - InformationWeek
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10/17/2006
07:31 PM
Patricia Keefe
Patricia Keefe
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Ethics 101

I received a one-line letter from a reader today, and I couldn't agree with him more: "Do you realize that if anyone has to ask about ethics, they shouldn't be doing the job to begin with?" Amen, brother. I had a similar reaction when listening to the recent congressional grilling of HP CEO Mark Hurd and ex-chairwoman Patricia Dunn about the company's tactics when investigating a media leak within its board.

I received a one-line letter from a reader today, and I couldn't agree with him more: "Do you realize that if anyone has to ask about ethics, they shouldn't be doing the job to begin with?"

Amen, brother.

I had a similar reaction when listening to the recent congressional grilling of HP CEO Mark Hurd and ex-chairwoman Patricia Dunn about the company's tactics when investigating a media leak within its board.To recap for anyone who has been off the planet for the last month, HP found itself in hot water after it was revealed that outside investigators used questionable tactics--at least some of which appear to have been approved by HP executives--to investigate several board members, journalists, and even their families. In addition to misusing employees' Social Security numbers, going through trash, surveilling people, and considering planting spies in two news rooms, the investigators impersonated board members and journalists in order to obtain their phone records.

Back to the hearings. As I listened, I thought, are we supposed to believe it never occurred to either one of these executives that anything they were doing (or signing off on, as the case may be) might be unethical?

C'mon.

It never crossed their minds that handing out Social Security numbers, impersonation, and lying just might be wrong? Illegal even? Mark Hurd actually said something along the lines that he didn't think pretexting was illegal because no one told him it was.

Ca'maaaan. But is legality really the issue here?

Just because most states haven't gotten around to outlawing "pretexting" doesn't mean it shouldn't be obvious that it's an odious thing to do. (The feds have managed to make it illegal in three different statutes--that ought to be a clue.) And as one poster to a recent blog entry on HP pointed out, what's with calling it pretexting anyhow? What does that mean? Why not call it what it is--fraud!

And then there's that responsibility thing.

It's been interesting watching first Dunn, then Hurd, do the duck dance. E-mails between Dunn and the investigators certainly give her the appearance of orchestrating the investigations--which were named after the location of her vacation home. Yet she claims the idea she led the investigation is a "myth."

Hurd was equally fascinating. The buck stopped with him, he declared. He even apologized on behalf of the company, but... Yep, there were "buts" aplenty in there.

As in, BUT...the CEO can't be on top of everything, you know. I agree, but you'd think it would behoove him to pay some attention to questionable tactics that required his go-ahead. You approve it, you own it, and all that. That's why he gets paid the very very big bucks, by the way.

He did get the report from the investigators laying out their plans, BUT...gee, he was moving, flying back and forth. He was busy. He didn't read it. Let's face it, CEOs don't move like the rest of us. I'm sure he had tons of assistance. And I don't know about you, but a confidential report on the investigative methods used to spy on board members and a progress update on what turned out to be a roughly two-year investigation sound important enough to at least warrant a quick scan.

CEOs are responsible for everything, BUT...this wasn't his top priority. He had other things on his plate, like cleaning up after Carly Fiorina probably, and, besides, he wasn't the "business owner" of this project. That, he said, was Patricia Dunn. Maybe she was, but she needed his okay on various tactics (and apparently got it on numerous occasions) to give the go-ahead to the investigators. Sure sounds like buck passing to me.

Moreover, Dunn insists she wasn't the leader of the project. (I guess no one was.) And she was completely unapologetic and, at times, completely implausible in her answers. As one congressman incredulously asked her, Do you really think it's OK to access someone else's phone records without their permission? Would you be okay with it happening to you?

And that was the one gotcha question of the entire hearing. Hurd admitted he would be uncomfortable if someone illegally perused his records. Which should have been enough for him to say no, when given the opportunity, but he didn't. Which brings me back to the letter from the reader.

I'm sure Hurd will continue to run HP, and the company will move on--albeit with a board more tightly tied to the company. After all, he apologized (always the first step toward redemption in American culture), HP is doing well, and enough underlings have already resigned or been sacked. Hopefully, though, he and other business leaders have learned an important and pretty simple lesson here. If it will look bad, or has to be done on the Q-T, it probably is a bad idea. Doing the right thing is always the simplest way to go in the long run, and for all you bean counters, most likely the cheapest. Just ask HP.

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