Part of being ethical is to know what to do when you’ve been unethical, and then have the character to do it. This is among the lessons taught to us by the saga of Brian Chase, who thought he would yank a colleague’s chain last May by placing some fake information onto the free web encyclopedia, Wikipedia. He apparently thought Wikipedia was a gag online reference (You have to admit: it sounds fake.), and not the widely used information resource that it is.
Lesson One: Practical jokes are fine, as long as you make sure that no innocent parties are in the crossfire. Chase’s joke had endangered not one but two innocent bystanders: Wikipedia, and the veteran journalist whom Chase’s fake entry claimed was part of conspiracies to assassinate both President Kennedy and his brother, Senator Robert Kennedy. The journalist, John Seigenthaler, Sr., has had a sterling career topped by being one of the founding editors of USA Today, and he understandably was horrified by the on-line allegations that he had a role in two murders. He wrote an editorial in that paper condemning Wikipedia, which allows the public to supplement and edit its entries, for inaccurate content and irresponsibility. Chase realized his mistake. He didn’t hide, though he could have.
Lesson Two: When you’ve made a bad mistake, move fast to contain the damage. He immediately apologized to Seigenthaler and Wikipedia.
Lesson Three: Take responsibility. And in an especially deft move, resigned his position as an operations manager at Rush Delivery, because he didn’t want to drag his company into an embarrassing matter that was his doing alone.
Lesson Four: Have the courage to pay the price for your error. The story of his botched joke and the harm it caused went out over the wire services. So far, nobody is suing.
We don’t know how much of Chase’s response was his own idea, and how much of it was dictated by lawyers employed by Wikipedia, Seigenthaler or Rush Delivery. But the final result is as good as it could be, given the initial harm done by Chase’s ill-conceived prank. He’s out of work during Christmas holidays, but he has apologized, been accountable, and accepted the penalty for his actions. That’s Ethics Hero stuff, even when it comes at the end of a personal fiasco.
Lesson Five: Every time you do something wrong, it creates an opportunity to right it.
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