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Developing a Code of Ethics for Software Engineers

Do You Have Ethical Intelligence?

What is Your Ethics IQ? – ANSWERS

Last week I posted ethics questions and in today’s post I will explain the answers. Ethics is not an exact science so you may disagree. Still, the explanations below are based on ethical standards of behavior that link to a philosophy or other form of ethical reasoning.

Questions & Answers

  1. You are on line to check out at your favorite bagel store when the customer in front of you reaches for cream cheese in a container in a refrigerated area. You notice she drops a $20 bill. She just paid for her food and left the store. You’re late for work already and although you suspect it isn’t likely that you would be penalized for being extra late, you do not want to disappoint your boss. What would you do assuming you can catch up with the customer?
  1.  Pocket the $20.
  2.  Tell the cashier and give him the $20 to return to the customer who is a regular.
  3.  Chase down the customer and return the $20.
  1. A=1; B=2; C=3

You would want the customer to return the $20 to you if the shoe was on the other foot. Keeping the $20 is stealing. Giving the money to the cashier doesn’t ensure it gets back to the customer. In answer (C) you intend to do the right thing and act on it.

  1. You are a student in Government 101 and are scheduled to take an essay final at 2:00 pm. While online, you notice a friend of yours in the 9:00 am section shared an Instagram photo of the essay questions. You are spending the time between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm in your study group. You need to ace this class to graduate with honors. What would you do?
  1.  Use the posting to prepare for the exam but don’t tell the group members about it.
  2. Inform the group members and use the posted information to prepare for the exam.
  3. gnore the posting.
  1. A= 2; B=1; C=3

Using the posted material to study for the exam is no different than using a stolen copy of the exam to prepare.  It is cheating and if you inform the other group members, you have brought them into the scheme. You need to consider the possible consequences of your intended action on yourself and the group members. Ignoring the posting removes you and others from any responsibility for using improperly posted material.

  1. You have discovered through a reliable third party that your best friend is cheating on his wife. Your wife asks whether you know anything about it after seeing your friend with another woman at a restaurant. What would you do?
  1.  Confide in her that the cheating is going on.
  2.  Deny you know anything about it.
  3.  Tell her your friend hasn’t said anything to you about it.
  1. A=3; B=1; C=2

Honesty requires that you tell your wife a third party informed you of the cheating and it is a reliable source. You can say that you have no direct knowledge of the cheating, which is technically correct, but it’s a lie by omission since you failed to disclose what you do know. Denying you know anything about it is an outright lie – a lie by commission. Your primary loyalty is to your wife and the truth, not to your best friend. Otherwise, your friend gets you involved in his unethical behavior.

  1. Your boss comes on to you at work. He constantly asks about your dating life and if you’re seeing anyone regularly. He regularly stares at you. His behavior makes you feel uncomfortable. But, you are up for a promotion and he has the final say. What would you do?
  1. Ignore it, at least until you get the promotion.
  2. Tell him his behavior is unwanted and you feel uncomfortable.
  3. Inform the Human Resources Department.
  1. A=1; B=3; C=2

You should always inform the party who is making you feel uncomfortable of your feelings. Sexual harassment occurs when an unwanted behavior is severe enough to affect your work environment. Given that the behavior is constant and regular, it’s probably safe to say it is sexual harassment. Ignoring it until you get the promotion doesn’t make the problem go away and your boss may even exhibit more aggressive behavior towards you now that he’s done something nice for you. Going to the HR Department is the proper step if you are going to lodge a formal complaint of harassment, but HR is likely to ask if you first informed your boss.

  1. Your best friend was diagnosed with cancer a year ago. You have seen him deteriorate and deal with excruciating pain since then. His doctor can’t prescribe marijuana, which might alleviate the pain, because it is illegal to do so in your state. You are thinking about crossing state lines and buying marijuana in a state that has medical and recreational-use marijuana laws even though it is illegal to do so under the federal Controlled Substances Act. What would you do?
  1. Cross state lines where buying and using marijuana is permitted and give it to your friend.
  2. Don’t cross state lines because it is illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act.
  3. Tell your friend to move to a state that has medical marijuana laws.
  1. A=1; B=3; C=2

This is the most difficult question in the test because it pits doing what is legal (answer B) against what might be viewed as ethical – compassionate use (answer A). The “best” answer is B because taking that action violates the law – federal Controlled Substances Act. The “safe” answer is to tell your friend he can legally get marijuana in a neighboring state if he moves there. In this case, no one violates the law and your friend’s illness and pain can be alleviated. Intelligence

  1. You work for a small business and do a lot of travel and entertaining of potential clients. The company issues a credit card for all employees to simplify the accounting function. The card is to be used solely for business expenses. One day while on an out-of-town trip and after business hours, you use the business card to go to the spa to get a massage to alleviate painful arthritis, a problem you have been dealing with for years. What would you do when questioned about this charge by the Accounting Department?
  1. Explain that the out-of-town trip included a five-hour flight that created stress for your osteoarthritis condition. The massage is a legitimate business expense and should be reimbursed.                                                                                                                                  
  2. Explain to the responsible person in the Accounting Department that you know it is a personal expense but ask that it be reimbursed this one time since you have a cash flow problem.                                                                                                                                                
  3. Offer to reimburse the company for the massage.
  1. A=1; B=2; C=3

Asking employees to repay personal expenses is the common way to deal with such situations. If for some reason the employee can’t reimburse the company then the amount of the massage can be deducted from the employee’s next paycheck. Explaining that you know it was a personal expense is accepting responsibility for your actions but doesn’t relieve you of the responsibility to reimburse the company. Trying to excuse a mistake by blaming a long flight begs the question that it’s still a misuse of the card, therefore, company resources.

  1. You have just been fired from your job. On the way out, you contemplate downloading some proprietary information about a new R&D project of your employer. You worked on the project so figure you had a right to do so. What would you do?
  1. Don’t download the information.                                                                                              
  2. Download the information about the project.                                                                                           
  3.  Ask your employer for permission to download the information.
  1. A=3; B=1; C=2

An employee does not have an ethical right to download proprietary information even if they worked on that information. Proprietary information belongs to the employer and should not be downloaded and taken when leaving a job. It’s illegal to do so, although exceptions may exist on a state-by-state basis in specific instances but clearly not R&D projects. Asking one’s employer permission may sound like a proper thing to do but it may raise questions in your (former) employer’s mind and that might lead to a negative recommendation when you apply for a new job. Your best course of action is to walk away with your head held high – take the ethical high road even if you believe the firing was wrongful.

  1. You are one of five workers on a team that performs financial calculations for your company. In advance of a meeting between the team and your supervisor, you discover a member of the team, who is your boyfriend, made a mistake in a calculation. The mistake made it look like the company was making more money than it was. What would you do assuming you are convinced the mistake was an honest one?
  1. Ignore it.
  2. Speak with your friend about it.
  3. Inform the supervisor.
  1. A=1; B=2; C=3

The issue here is where does your loyalty lie. On the one hand you want to be loyal to your boyfriend. On the other, if you ignore it and your supervisor finds out later on, all trust in you may be lost. This is a difficult situation but one where the concept of the “ethical slippery slope” comes into play. Once you slide down the slope by covering up or ignoring something that is wrong, it becomes more difficult to admit to the truth later on. What if your boyfriend does it again and you ignored it the first time? 

  1. You manage a group of six employees. One day one of those employees calls in sick. Later that day you notice the employee posted photos at a restaurant to Instagram. What would you do?
  1. Speak to the employee the next day when she comes to work.
  2. Let it go and say nothing.
  3. Fire the employee. 
  1. A=3; B=2; C=1

It’s possible that the pictures were taken on another day but posted the sick day so it’s best to speak to the employee about the incident. Firing the employee seems hasty and unfair and might lead to legal action. Ignoring the matter prevents you from using this specific incident as a “teachable moment.” Other employees may come to believe it’s OK to misuse sick days.

  1. You are a manager at a fast food restaurant and monitor your employee’s social media posts on company equipment. You just read a Facebook post by an employee who commented that the working conditions were oppressive. Other employees commented; some agreeing and others disagreeing. Assuming you work in an “at will” employment state (either the employer or the employee may terminate employment at any time). What would you do?
  1. Fire the employee who posted the critical comments.
  2. Ignore the comments.
  3. Meet with the employee(s) to discuss the comments.
  1. A=1; B=2; C=3

The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that critical comments about an employer are protected conduct when it involves concerted activity. If the comment was an isolated statement made by one employee, then it would qualify as a “personal gripe,” which is not protected. Given that other employees commented on your post agreeing/disagreeing with you, this constitutes concerted action. It’s best to meet with the employee(s) to address the issues and reach an understanding how to improve working conditions. Ignoring the comments is bad for morale and might lead to more criticism down the road.


10-16: You consistently look for the easy way out, or you consider your needs and desires ahead of others. You need to consider what’s right and wrong and not use a relativistic/situational approach to ethics that lets you decide what to do based on what you want to do rather than time-honored ethical standards.

17-24: Sometimes you take the high road, and sometimes you don’t. You are not consistently considering the consequences of your actions. Being ethical requires a long-term commitment to do the right thing, even if it means taking an action that you think harms you in the short run.

25-30: Congratulations! You not only know what the right thing to do is, you consistently do it even when pressured by others to deviate from your ethical values.

Want to learn more about why acting ethically leads to one decision and not another, read my new book, Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior, that will be available for sale in June. It will be listed on Amazon and other outlets. You can find out more about my book and professional services on my website. Follow me on Facebook for updates on the book. 

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on May 28, 2019.