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Friday Philosophy – Be Moral or Be Sacked?

How far will you bend your moral stance to keep your job?

This post was prompted by a Twitter discussion over the recent VW Emissions scandal development where software engineers are being blamed. Let’s just skip over the rather trite and utterly unbelievable proposition that a couple of rogue software engineers did this “for reasons unknown” – and the fuel engineers, mechanical engineers, and direct managers did not realise “hey, our engines are more efficient than we knew was possible, never mind seen”. Plus the testers, change control, release managers, etc were all circumvented by the rogue software engineers…. It would have to be incompetence of unbelievable levels for the whole stack of management up to the top did not in some way at least know about this – and I personally am sure they condoned or even demanded the results.

What made me think was a comment by a friend that the software engineers must have at least colluded and thus are at least partially responsible – and it struck a chord in me. What constitutes collusion? and would you or I do it? I’ve been in a very similar situation…

Back in my first job I worked for one of the regions of the UK National Health Service, as a programmer. An edict came down from high. Government high. We were to make the waiting list figures look better. “We” being the NHS management initially but, as I guess they were powerless to really do much about the reality of the situation, it come down the levels until it was realised it was the data used to show how the waiting times were doing that could so easily be changed.

I was given the job of altering the Waiting List Reports in a few ways. A key one was how the date you started waiting was measured. No matter how often the hospital cancelled your appointment or sent you home not having done the procedure, the date from which you started waiting remained the same. However, if you were offered an appointment and for any reason you could not attend – ANY reason, be you ill in another way, have a responsibility you could not avoid, were only given a day’s notice – the date you were waiting was reset to the day of the refused appointment. Of course this was utterly unjust and we were told it would not really mean Mrs Smith who had been waiting 3 months would now have to wait another 3 months – “it would be handled”. But it made the figures so much better.

I refused. In the first place it was a con, in the second I doubted all the Mrs Smiths would be handled as the NHS, even back then, was in a right state.

To this day I am proud I refused.

My colleague was given the task instead – and she did it. I asked her how she could do it? We had some shared political and philosophical views. How could she do something she knew was utterly false and misleading? Her answer was simple.

“You’re lucky – you can afford to take the risk. I’ve just got married, we have a mortgage and I have …other responsibilities – I can’t afford to damage my career or get sacked. You can.”

She was right. I did not know it then but she was trying for a baby, so yeah, getting sacked would have been devastating. On the other hand, I had no dependents (no one loved me), no mortgage and I was already muttering about leaving. She had in effect been bullied into doing a task she was morally against. And she knew, if she did not do it someone else would and she would have taken the hit.

And I confess, I did not simply stand up, shout defiance and proudly walk out the room, head held high. I had a long chat with my union rep about what support I could expect if things got bad before I refused. I knew he was ready to support me.

There were repercussions. I already had a poor relationship with my manager. After I refused to do that work I had an even worse relationship with him, and now his boss disliked me quite a lot too. It was a large part of me leaving to join some no-hope database company.

So, I think there is a very large difference in colluding and being coerced.

The same argument goes up the stack too. I can imagine there were lots of people involved in the VW scandal who knew what was going on, did not like it but, “hey, it’s my job I am risking and it’s not as if I’m the one *authorising* this”.

I can’t say I’ve always held to my moral ground so strongly, I’ve done a couple of things professionally I wish now I’d also said no to. But I’ve also said no to a couple more.

{I hope the statute of limitations on mentioning governmental evils is less that 25 years…}