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Is a BlackBerry an Ethical Risk?

July 2006We all have our stories about BlackBerries. They unleash obsessive behavior. They are annoying to others in public. They cut into family time. But do you know that they also pose ethical risks? And I'm not talking about leaks of confidential information or privacy issues.

As well as the ubiquitous use of email, BlackBerries (or the singular BlackBerry, a wireless email device produced by Research in Motion Ltd.) have accelerated trends in managers not responding to employees' needs, especially regarding attempts to report unethical conduct.

For so many of us we get frustrated when we lose the attention of a colleague to their BlackBerry and their need to check for email on a minute-by-minute basis. But that lack of attention can also turn away an employee who is looking for a manager's help in dealing with a critical situation. Managers not giving employees the time of day can serve to cut off a critical flow of data from its very source.

Research shows that employee willingness to report misconduct went down in 2005, despite the continuous discussion of ethics in the press and the near universal adoption of Sarbanes-recommended program elements, such as help lines and codes of conduct. Based on the research of the Ethics Resource Center in its National Business Ethics Survey 2005 (PDF), "of the employees who observed misconduct at work in 2005, just over half (55 percent) reported it to management, a 10 percentage point decrease since 2003 and a backsliding to levels similar to those in 2000."

While there are many reasons why employees don't report misconduct, one persistent factor is that employees don't trust that managers will either not make life miserable for the employee, or will do anything constructive with the information once it's reported.

In our rush to put in place all of the elements of an "effective" ethics program, it is easy to overlook the critical human element: It takes a tremendous amount of courage for an employee to come forward and discuss a potential ethical or legal violation.

Think about it. It's our nature not to make a fuss. Who likes to stick their neck out? So if we muster enough courage to walk into our boss's office, we want to be sure that we won't regret our decision.

Let's say I uncover some unethical or illegal activity in my group. After some internal debate I decide that I have to tell someone what I saw. I knock on my boss's door. She waves me in. While I'm trying to put my thoughts together she gives me that irritated look that I'm already wasting her time. "What do you want? Can't you see I'm busy?" As I start to speak she is looking at her computer monitor or fidgeting with her BlackBerry. After a minute or two I say "never mind" and walk out.

This manager didn't engage in any unethical conduct herself. She also may not have had any intention of retaliating against me. But she failed to create an environment where I felt comfortable raising an issue. And that issue may be the very one that, left undetected, could give rise to a major ethics issue or financial restatement.

So what could the manager have done? How about some simple eye contact? Thank me for coming in and acknowledge how difficult the decision was to raise the issue. Show me some respect by shutting the door and not taking any calls. And put down that BlackBerry!

Here's a secret: Employees are not reporting machines. They're people with feelings. We need to feel safe and comfortable before we take risks. Our managers' job is to do what they can to make this process easier.

And my guess is that if managers put down their BlackBerries when employees need to speak with them confidentially, we would see a dramatic increase in employee willingness to report misconduct.
DAVID GEBLER, J.D. is President of Working Values, Ltd., a business ethics training and consulting firm specializing in developing behavior-based change to support compliance objectives. More articles by David Gebler

WORKING VALUES LTD. is a business ethics and training company. Through a variety of products and services, including Web-based compliance and ethics programs, on-site training, video and award-winning ethics games for employees, Working Values aims to align employee behavior with company values. For more information as to how Working Values can narrow your company's Behavior-Standards Gap, visit or contact For news on ethics in the workplace, visit SmartPros Ethics & Compliance.

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