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Ethical Dissent

Ethical Dissent is not a single, heroic action. It may begin with a single action, but can extend to involve substantial amounts of an individual's time and resources. It is likely to start as the result of an employee noticing that things are not what they ought to be, and then attempting to get them changed by talking to people in the organization. It can end easily, with changes made quickly, or it can end by involving an unfolding number of agencies, lawyers, legal systems, and public proceedings. Sometimes, the direction it takes after the beginning is in your own hands. At other times, you may get swept up in the events as they unfold, and must struggle to maintain your credibility, moral standing, and career.

But ethical dissent does not need to go as far as making public allegations about wrongdoing in your company. It can involve as little as making a well supported suggestion that policy be changed in your organization. Ethical dissent becomes whistleblowing when you make your dissent public by going outside the organization and contacting others to convince them to help you reform the organization.

The IEEE ethics committee has adopted a very useful set of guidelines for ethical dissent. Some of their recommendations are listed below in italics, with annotations from after them The committee has provided its own annotations at the site linked above.

  1. Establish a clear technical foundation. You usually cannot prove your point with mathematical certainty, but you are much better off in making a complaint if you have done your homework carefully ahead of time. This guideline may not have helped Goodearl much, since she did not have the technical background needed. But there were steps she could have taken, like making sure she knew the procedures and the exceptions in all their detail. She might then have proposed a solution that satisfied the need to get chips out the door and need to follow the testing guidelines.
  2. Keep your arguments on a high professional plane, as impersonal and objective as possible, avoiding extraneous issues and emotional outbursts. If people become defensive, they are unlikely to want to change. So your arguments should be about procedure and product, etc. rather than about people. In Goodearl's case, she clearly became branded as a "disgruntled employee" and this hurt her influence in the organization and in the later court case.
  3. Try to catch problems early, and keep the argument at the lowest managerial level possible. Advice about keeping things at the lowest level is similar to catching things early--they both minimize the magnitude of the change. Catching problems early is crucial. Once the product is already behind schedule or its delivery is publicly announced, it is hard to back away from. Sometimes, you might find it not worth making a fuss about the current product, and more worth your time to make sure that the problem does not come up again (or is caught early) on the next product.
  4. Before going out on a limb, make sure that the issue is sufficiently important. By "going out on a limb" the committee here most clearly means whistleblowing: going outside the organization to report wrongdoing. Once this happen you will almost certainly have burnt your bridges and will not be able to rest in your position even if you are legally entitled to it. Consider the cost here, and make a decision about doing the good you can do within the organization versus whistleblowing. Sometimes, whistleblowing is the right thing, but its cost is high.
  5. Use (and help establish) organizational dispute resolution mechanisms. You should follow this bit of savvy advice before you get involved in a situation. Check now to find out if your organization has a dispute resolution mechanism. If it does not, work to establish one. It may help you later. It appears the Goodearl tried to use a dispute resolution process involving the personnel department, but this failed when her contact there simply reported her complaint directly to her supervisor. If there had been a more clear dispute resolution process, her complaints might have had a more fair hearing. Don't get caught this way.
  6. Keep records and collect paper. These should be kept beginning as soon as you realize that you might need to go either to internal dispute resolution or to the more extreme whistleblowing. Reconstructed documents are not well received by others, since they depend so much on memory. When you begin to make a case for some reform that you think may be resisted, document the process in as much detail as you can. You may need it later. Goodearl had some documentation in the form of a notebook she kept of her interactions. This notebook was crucial in the court case that followed her whistleblowing. But whether she had reconstructed some portions of the notebook became an issue in the case.

The running theme in the IEEE ethics committee's comments on all these issues is professionalism. Your complaint must be clearly laid out, without any personal bias, and argued on the basis of reason and not emotion. It is not enough to get mad, in fact, getting mad can be counter-productive.

All these recommendations are about what to do inside your organization when you disagree, for ethical reasons, with some action your organization is taking. But at some point, it may become clear to you, like it did to Margaret Goodearl, that you will need to report the wrongdoing to an outside agency.