Tim Ebner is former senior editor of Associations Now in Washington, DC.
When faced with a big IT decision, make it a habit to think about ethical implications and possible dilemmas.
When Rhea Steele, CAE, chief operating officer for the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, is faced with a big IT decision, she makes it a habit to think about the ethical dilemmas.
And, if necessary, raise a red flag.
Several years ago, she worked for an association that didn’t have a formal process or policy for email archiving. With an e-discovery process in place, the organization put itself at risk for lawsuits.
“I realized that we could run into problems,” Steele says. “The ethical issue that came up after we implemented [e-discovery] was that at one point, I was asked as the IT person to go into an employee’s email, into the email archive, and pull information out.”
Instead of acting, she paused and asked her staff to develop a set of policies and procedures that could serve as ethical guardrails for such a sensitive information request.
Her team worked to define a chain of custody for such requests, detailing who could and could not make such a retrieval request, as well as who in IT could fulfill that request, keeping in mind the organization’s confidentiality constraints.
“It set us up really well for when we actually did have an organizational lawsuit,” Steele says. “We tested a process internally before we had to use it in real life.”
Associations and their IT staff face numerous ethical dilemmas that can have a ripple effect on business operations. And they are only getting more complicated as digital tools become ubiquitous, which is why Steele says that one of the pressure tests organizations needs to be doing when they implement new systems or policies is “the ethical pressure test.”
Common IT ethical dilemmas for associations can stem from funding, contracting, or the handling and usage of large data sets. In each of these scenarios, Steele says, there are often strict protocols that IT staff must know, follow, and use.
“Say you have an office move, and the data set gets lost,” Steele says. “If an IT staff member uncovers that security protocols related to these sensitive data sets aren’t being adhered to, that’s a pretty major issue that needs to be addressed, and it’s an ethical issue.”
Ignoring an issue will only raise the stakes higher, Steele says. Something as critical as the loss of personally identifiable information can quickly turn into a full-fledged crisis. In many instances, an ethical pressure test can eliminate most gray areas that staff might face and help to formalize a plan when a crisis does occur.
By doing all that prework, you’re actually ready to go when something does happen.—Rhea Steele, CAE
It also helps to have a framework or decision-making model to guide your thinking. Recently, Steele began thinking through the “Ethical Decision-Making Model” developed by ASAE’s Ethics Committee.
“By doing all that prework, you’re actually ready to go when something does happen,” Steele says. “As opposed to either not being ready … or being unprepared and unintentionally finding yourself in a situation where you do have an ethical crisis.”
[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "Tech Memo: Pressure Test."]