Topic: Business & Commercial

Rejecting the Hackers

Rationalizations are the bane of ethicists but balm for just about everybody else (okay,okay… for ethicists too, when we can’t quite match our deeds to our lofty aspirations.) These are the little lies we tell ourselves and others to make us feel better about being unethical, and there are dozens of them. Because most people will want to use these same rationalizations ("Everybody does it" being the most enduring and ever green) at some point, there is a very strong tendency to accept them to excuse behavior that really isn’t excusable.

Well, this week the rationalizations were flying as thick as the fur on a Missouri beaver pelt, as Dan Rather might have said, when it was revealed that over 150 applicants to some of the nation’s most prestigious MBA programs took advantage of a faulty computer program and attempted to examine their admission files to find out whether they had been admitted. Harvard, M.I.T. and Carnegie Mellon, taking this as a significant marker of ethical weakness on the part of the students involved, announced that they were rejecting anyone who tried to peek.

Applicants were able to access the admissions sites of at least six schools for about 10 hours after a hacker posted "how-to" instructions on a BusinessWeek Online forum. It didn’t work so well, actually: many applicants just saw blank pages, while others viewed rejection letters. The instructions told applicants to log in to their admissions web page and find their identification numbers in the source codes available on the site. By plugging those numbers into another web page address, they were told that they would be directed to a page where their admissions decisions would be found.

The now rejected applicants are shouting foul, and they have many defenders in the press and academia who feel that the schools over-reacted.

"For what we did to be considered unethical, you would think it would have to have done harm to someone or gained an unfair advantage to ourselves," said one applicant bounced by Harvard. "There was no malicious intent," argues another. Several columnists have said that the schools were at fault for not having a more secure system. "It was just a lapse in judgement," say other defenders. Some ethicists are taking the students’ side as well. Marjorie Kelly, editor and co-founder of the Minneapolis-based magazine Business Ethics, said the students were just unlucky; they were in " the wrong place at the wrong time," when the hacker’s message popped up on their screens. Edwin Hartman, director of the Prudential Business Ethics Center at Rutgers University, argues that the fact that "curiosity got the better of them does not make them bad people.". "If this were the worst thing business people ever did," he said, " we’d be living in Utopia."

Let’s see: rationalization… rationalization… rationalization… rationalization… rationalization…and rationalization.

Harvard and the other schools were dead right to give the students a pink slip, and to also reject the seductive defenses that have been offered in their defense. The only way to prevent more Enrons, Worldcoms, Adelphias, and Tycos in the future isn’t more ethics codes and it isn’t more and better business school ethics courses. The ethical environment in the business world will improve when it is dominated by leaders who eschew easy rationalizations and are determined to do the right, honest and fair thing no matter what the benefits may be of doing otherwise. The students that used the hacker’s methods showed beyond any question that they are not such individuals.

Just to clear the air, let’s dispose of the rationalizations mentioned above.

  • "Nobody was hurt." Well, me buckos, hacking into another party’s private records is a crime, and obtaining information illicitly before everyone else has been duly informed is cheating. You can expect to hear a lot of this rationalization from Barry Bonds one of these days. Not every wrongful act has to "hurt."

  • "There was no malicious intent." A real classic: "we meant no harm." The Catholic bishops who kept reassigning child-molesting priests didn’t have malicious intent either…they just had their priorities and values horribly misaligned. The amount of damage that has been done over the eons by unethical acts with "no malicious intent" is massive.

  • "They were in the wrong place at the wrong time." Wow…the Lynndie England Defense! The whole point to having ethical standards is that one can do the right thing when the unexpected opportunity to do otherwise presents itself, like when someone says, "Hey, Lynndie…how about humiliating these helpless Iraqi prisoners?" Sure, it’s easy to be ethical if you never get the chance to be otherwise. But running a business or a corporation presents lots of such chances.

  • "It was just a lapse in judgement." No! This wasn’t just stupid, it was also wrong. Almost all unethical acts are lapses of judgement as well; that’s not a justification. This was a lapse in judgement that a more ethical applicant wouldn’t make.

  • "Business people do a lot worse all the time."

Excuse me while I scream.

Harvard, M.I.T. and Carnegie-Mellon aren’t "grandstanding" as one critic has maintained. The schools are…finally…taking ethics seriously. These students are cheating at the beginning of their business careers, motivated not by huge bonuses and stock options, but just by the promise of an early answer to a question causing them a little anxiety. The schools are saying that it can find better, that the business world needs better. Absolutely.

Sloan School Dean Richard Schmalensee sees the situation clearly: "The analogy I use is, if someone gives you a key to the office and says you can go in there and look at your file, and you do it, did you do something wrong? Yes."

"It seemed to us you would have to have pretty bad judgment or pretty bad ethics not to know you were doing something wrong," Schmalensee said. "If you don’t realize you shouldn’t do that, something’s off."

Meanwhile, the reaction of so many in the business ethics field shows that something is off there as well…one more reason why the business schools have taken an important, if belated, step in the right direction.


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