ITS 321: Legal and Ethical Issues in Information Technology

Lesson 9: Ethics of IT Organizations


Chapter 10 discusses a selection of topics that relate to the practices of IT organizations. Objectives that are stated to be important to this lesson:

  1. Contingent workers
  2. Whistle blowing
  3. Imposing ethics on members of a supply chain

Chapter 10 begins with some statistics showing a drop in the number of students studying computer science programs. The study cited in the text can be found by following this link. The author used the downward trend in enrollment as a reason for hiring nontraditional workers. This rationale seems less valid when we look at the more recent upswing in enrollment. In bad economic times, enrollment in schools tends to increase.

The text continues with a discussion of several types of nontraditional employees.

Contingent workers seems to be a catch all phrase for workers hired without a clear idea of how long their jobs will last. It makes sense that a company would need to hire people when there is change in the work environment (e.g. new contracts to fulfill, new legislation to accommodate). In the IT world, it is not uncommon to see new employees from contract agencies who are hired for specific projects that may or may not have specific end dates. The text makes a point that such employees have no contract for continued employment. This is true even for the staff with contracts: their contract does not presume that the employee will continue past the end of the contract. Such staff are actually employees of their placing agency, or they are classed as contracted staff, making them ineligible in either case for benefits that would apply to full time permanent staff. This results in a savings for the employer (not the contracting agency) which may or may not be offset by the higher wages usually paid to contract staff.

The text discusses some criteria for deciding when to hire contingent staff vs. hiring or using full time staff.

  • Will the project be done faster and/or less expensively? There is an advantage to the method whose answers are "yes".
  • Will we need the skills that the project requires after it is complete? If not, there is an advantage to using contingent staff.
  • Will the output of the project be maintainable by permanent staff? If not, the contingent staff may be needed for a long time.

The text discusses a case in which temporary staff were kept on by a company for a long enough time that they were considered as permanent employees by state and federal agencies. The text presents a list of questions that might be used to determine whether or not a person is an employee, but no indication is given of the correct answer for either case, so the list is not helpful.

The text moves on to discuss H1-B visa workers. These are workers with skills equivalent to a four year degree, needed for specific employment that cannot be readily met by domestic job applicants. Note the time limit on H1-B visas: six years. If a worker has worked this long on an H1-B visa, they must leave the United States for a year before another such visa can be approved. The text lists limits on the number of such visas that can be approved each year, and discusses some pros and cons in employing H1-B staff, including the hiring process and the process of applying for the visa.

Ethical issues can arise. If the company hiring the H1-B worker misclassifies the job being filled as a lower paid position, the company can illegally save money by paying that lower wage instead of the appropriate wage to the worker. The text describes such a situation, in which the employer is found guilty of fraud and is required to pay the back wages owed to the employee. Look over this article about another spin on the situation, in which lower skilled workers may have been passed off as higher skilled workers, and the system may have been abused by intentionally bringing in workers under the wrong program.

The next topic is outsourcing. Companies can avoid the issues associated with hiring employees if they buy the services those employees would have provided from another company. The major discussion in this section is about offshore outsourcing, buying services from companies in other countries. The discussion focuses on IT services such as help desk and programming services.

The major advantage to offshore outsourcing is reduced cost. The text tells us that outsourcing to India for programming used to cost a sixth what it would cost in the United States. At the time the text was written the the cost had changed to a third of US cost due to rises in wages in India, caused by increased demand. The text tells us that the same problems that occur with H1-B visa employees may also occur with offshore outsourcing. The text offers a list of recommendations for making sure an outsourcing scenario will work.

The next major topic in the chapter is whistle blowing. We have already discussed the main idea: revealing some form of wrongdoing to people who should either care about it (the public) or people who should be able to change it (management, law enforcement, the court system, stockholders). Note the discussion in the text about there being different laws in different places regarding what protections a whistle blower might or might not have. The bottom line in this section seems to be that doing the right thing can be hard to determine, and doing what you think is right may have negative consequences for you.

The chapter ends with a short piece on a movement to have a common code of conduct for all members of the IT community. The suggestion is made that this code would be applicable to suppliers, assemblers, and other entities contributing to a service or product. A point to consider is that you cannot impose your ethics on another organization for the simple reason that they are not your organization.