Ethical IT

Written by Pam Lefkowitz on May 12, 2022

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I’ve always been the type of person to put other people’s needs above my own – sometimes to a fault. Of course, that characteristic led me to a helping profession: IT Administration, Consulting, MSP work. Yes, I see IT as a helping profession. In addition, I am drawn to people who also believe in things like helping others and “do no harm,” who know that company earnings mean nothing if one’s moral compass is too far off north.

Today, my time is no longer filled with the day-to-day tasks of that helping profession. I still have the occasional panicked call from someone who refuses to use a new person, but those are rarer of late. Instead I spend my days reading and creating and guiding. I love it, as I get to live by my values in a company with leadership that embraces similar values. 

This past week, as with most weeks, reading up on one topic brought me to another topic and, next thing I knew, I was down a deep rabbit hole about Values, Morals, and Ethics. Happens to everyone, right? And, as typically happens, I learned something along the way! I feel like I’ve had a couple of semesters’ worth of learning.

Values, Morals, and Ethics

Values are the foundation of an individual person’s ability to judge between right and wrong. Values include a deep-rooted system of beliefs that guide a person’s decisions. They form a personal, individual foundation that influences a particular person’s behavior.

Morals, also known as moral values, are the system of beliefs that emerge out of core values. Morals are specific and context-driven rules that govern a person’s desire to be good. They can be shared by a larger population, but a person’s moral code may differ from others’ depending on their personal values.

While morals are concerned with individuals feeling “good” or “bad,” ethics determine what behaviors are “right” or “wrong.” Ethics dictate what practical behaviors are allowed, while morals reflect our intentions. Consider morals as the rulebook and ethics as the motivator that leads to proper or improper action.

I thought about all the examples of people in my life with strong values, northerly-pointing moral compasses, and a (personal or professional) code of ethics I can get behind. One person who falls into this category is my friend and colleague Tom Bridge. He did a session at PSU MacAdmins and another at MacSysAdmin about the philosophy of IT Management, User Trust, and Codes of Ethics. We have similar values systems, he and I, and so I asked him if I could borrow heavily from his presentations. Oh, by the way, this isn’t going to be a review of the sessions – you really should watch them both. Just go…I’ll wait.

Basically, the premise of a Code of Ethics is to help the company or IT Department “do the most good for the greatest number of people.” Did I mention that every company should have a Code of Ethics? And as one who speaks to IT Admins daily, who reads a lot of IT admin comments and frustrations, I will say that the IT Department should have its own. 

Why IT is So Hard

It seems that some of my colleagues may have forgotten that good values and great user experiences are the focus of our work. There is entirely too much “users lie” in our community and the treatment of users is, too often, terrible. These are not “users”. They’re co-workers; colleagues. Most of all, they’re people. They should be treated like people. I see far too many threads that demean users for not having our level of technical expertise. Treat your users the way you want to be treated – every single time. 

Sadly, in far too many cases, the companies that my colleagues work for have, in turn, forgotten that IT Admins are people too and should also be treated with respect – as any co-worker should expect. Being beaten down from above creates ill will (to say the least!) which, then, gets pushed down to the users. I wish I could influence those companies’ leadership, but my circle is finite and revolves around my IT peeps. I can only arm y’all with suggestions. Fortunately, at this time there are a plethora of IT jobs out there and if you are profoundly unhappy in your job, you should be able to find another that’s better for you. 

I suspect that one of the reasons that IT admins are unhappy with their leadership and unhappy with their users is that there is no Code of Ethics in their department or in their company. Every team should have a Code of Ethics…whether that team is IT Admins, accounts receivable, content writing, or C-Suite. As the song says, “you have to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.” 

What is a Code of Ethics and What Really Goes Into One?

Great question and I’d love to tell you (borrowing from a Tik-Tok favorite, Elyse Myers).

Every organization has rules for employee behavior and interaction. But rules are not all-encompassing. They have gaps that are constantly being refined. A Code of Ethics is the gap-filling component that organizations or persons follow in order to keep everyone’s moral compass pointing north. It tells what is expected of us and it tells others what they can expect from us.

A CoE can be as lean or as complex as you want, so long as the values of your organization are accurately reflected.

It should contain, at least, the following topics, because why we do things the way we do them is as important as what we do and every person we come in contact with deserves to understand our guiding principles:

  • What we will do
  • What we will NOT do
  • Why what we do is important
  • Why how we treat your IT is as important as how we treat our own IT
  • How we decide what is important

Further, clear communication with individual team members is the most important element to a high-functioning IT organization. Therefore, every Code of Ethics should also describe how we treat our own team members, how we expect them to be treated by others, and how that relates to and impacts our users’ day to day experience:

  • We will always explain policy or direct you to someone who can
  • We will staff appropriately (see our staffing calculator in our JumpCloud Community)
  • We will not burn out our staff – you deserve a consistent, knowledgeable IT staff

You can be as verbose as you like within each of these commitments. 

Some Examples

SANS IT Code of Ethics general guidelines are:

  1. I will strive to know myself and be honest about my capability
  2. I will conduct my business in a manner that assures the IT profession is considered one of integrity and professionalism
  3. I respect privacy and confidentiality.[1]

Here is one professional who chose to expound on these principles to better fit his business values and moral principles.

IEEE Code of Ethics

  1. To uphold the highest standards of integrity, responsible behavior, and ethical conduct in professional activities.
  2.  To treat all persons fairly and with respect, to not engage in harassment or discrimination, and to avoid injuring others.
  3.  To strive to ensure this code is upheld by colleagues and co-workers.

Folks, even hackers have a Code of Ethics. And, for sure, ethical hackers have one! Don’t waste another minute clarifying “on the fly”. Get your CoE formalized and published so everyone knows who you are, what you do, and why you do it. 

A Code of Ethics pushes you to put your values down on paper. It pushes you to have clear  communication with your teammates, your leadership, and your users. It lays bare all that you do as an IT Professional and it forces you to ask if you have been honest – with yourself and with those around you.

Are you an ethical hacker? Does you have an IT Code of Ethics? Come share yours (or get some ideas for how to write one) with us in the JumpCloud Community

Pam Lefkowitz

Pam is an IT Columnist at JumpCloud where she uses her experience as a consultant and MSP to write about IT admin life and tech. Outside of (remote) work hours, she spends her time with her dog, visiting her kids across the country, and being creative with fiber.

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