Ethical Dilemmas in the Workplace for Employees
How to be Happier at Work

Unethical Employee Behaviors in the Workplace

Disclosing Confidential Information, Stealing Others’ Work, and Pirating Software Cause Real Harm to Others

My last blog dealt with ethical dilemmas for employees based on discriminatory actions by others in the organization. Today I look at employee-generated wrongful behaviors. One of the most threatening actions an employee can take is to divulge confidential information about an employer. Another is to take credit for the work of another employee. A third is to use company resources and equipment for personal purposes.

Confidential Information

According to a survey conducted by Symantec in 2013, roughly “half of employees who left or lost their jobs kept confidential corporate data” and 40 percent planned to use it in their new jobs. Not only did employees take confidential information from their employers, they apparently did not feel guilty about it. On the contrary, 51 percent said it was “acceptable to take corporate data because their company does not strictly enforce policies” and 62 percent said that it is “acceptable to transfer work documents to personal computers, tablets, smartphones or online file sharing applications” with a majority saying they never delete such data “because they do not see any harm in keeping it.”

This is a troubling finding since confidential business information is oftentimes “proprietary information” or “trade secrets” and not generally known by the public. Disclosing such information is akin to insider trading on non-publicly-available corporate information. The rationale for such actions draws on the concept of moral relativism. That is, the act is considerable acceptable because the company doesn’t have adequate policies to cover it or because other employees do the same thing. The problem is ethics is immutable and not subject to an individual’s personal desires.

Common examples of “trade secrets” include manufacturing processes and methods, business plans including merger and acquisition targets, internal financial data, computer programs and data compilation, client/customer lists, and ingredient formulas and recipes. Just imagine if a disgruntled employee disclosed the legendary secret formula for Coca-Cola.

The disclosure of confidential employer information is an egregious abuse of the trust employers place in employees and can never be justified because of alleged bad treatment by one’s employer. Employers need to require employees to sign “non-disclosure agreements” that prohibit employees from disseminating company-specific vital information and include a duty of confidence and restraint of trade clauses.

Taking Credit for the Work of Another Employee

One of the most common emails I receive is from readers who claim someone else in the company took credit for his/her work. Typically, I hear that one person presented the work or conclusions of another without acknowledging that work. The way to handle these matters depends on the seriousness of the event. For example, if we are talking about leaving your name off an email distribution list then it’s best to first approach the offending employee and discuss the matter. It may be an oversight. By informing the co-worker you put them on notice that you know what they did and you won’t stand for that behavior going forward.

If the offending employee has a more devious motive, then go to your supervisor to discuss the matter. Your reputation may be at stake in the organization. You shouldn’t allow someone else to take credit for your hard work and, if you do, it very well may occur again in the future. Also, by discussing the matter with your supervisor you protect the interests of your co-workers some of whom might be a target in the future.

Use of Company Resources for Personal Purposes

The use of company resources for personal purposes occurs more often than we would like to believe. These acts range from stealing company cash or inventory, taking home supplies or other resources, using company credit cards for personal purchases, charging personal expenses to the company on business trips, and using company equipment for personal purposes. I focus on the latter situation below.

All employees should protect the company’s assets and ensure their efficient use. Company equipment should not be used for non-company business although incidental and limited use, from time to time, may be acceptable if properly authorized in advance.

Two of the most common examples are the use of company computers for personal email communications and using the company computers for purposes such as personal social media activities. For example, it would be wrong to use the company computer to create a flyer for your daughter’s dance recital and to print hundreds of copies on the company computer, just as it would be wrong to post the event on social media during work hours.

The most common form of misuse by employees is to take a copy of a software program used by a company and covert it to personal use. For example, the company may have Photoshop software that you find too expensive to buy. Pirated software is a serious matter including copyright infringement.

According to a 2013 survey conducted by an analyst at International Data Corp. for Microsoft, the use of counterfeit and pirated software in the workplace is costing enterprises more than $114 billion each year. Part of the problem is the prevalence of end-user software installation in the workplace and personal mobile devices brought into the network without any proper security protocols.

The results of the survey are alarming. Nearly 38 percent of IT managers are aware employees install personal software on company computers and 57 percent of workers admitted to engaging in this practice. IT managers and chief information officers reported that only 15 percent of the software installed by employees were problem free and the risk of malware is a big concern.

Another problem is installing personal software on the company computer ostensibly to do personal work on the job. The lines become blurred quickly as to who owns what.

What are Your Personal Responsibilities?

I am concerned that if left unchecked, the misuse of company computers and software may become common place and largely be ignored by companies much the same has occurred with taking office supplies home and making copies of personal documents on a company printer or copying machine.

Just as students should not engage in any form of cheating in college including plagiarizing the work of others, one employee should not take credit for another’s work. Just as professors should not divulge confidential student data, employees must maintain the confidence of employer information. Just as students should not use university-provided software programs for non-study purposes, employees should not download employer software for personal use.

All these behaviors in the workplace violate ethical standards of honesty, trustworthiness, respecting the property rights of others, and accepting personal responsibility to act in accordance with basic moral standards of right and wrong.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 2, 2016. Dr. Mintz is Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at