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Home > Audio, Podcast, Show > Archive: “What if it were you?” from the Career Opportunities Podcast

Archive: “What if it were you?” from the Career Opportunities Podcast

November 9th, 2012

Career Opportunities podcast logoIt has happened to all of us. You get the call, or the email, “The boys upstairs say we have to do XYZ.” Then, often without question, we do exactly that, no matter how wrong we might think the action. There are several flaws to such blind obedience and we see them nearly every day.

The latest example from the world of large corporations is the alleged ease with which the NSA was allowed to set up equipment to monitor all Internet traffic at various points in AT&T’s massive telecomm network. It seems that at no time did any AT&T employees or contractors question the breach of privacy this created, let alone the legality of such operations. Instead, AT&T allegedly provided the NSA room for their equipment, special fiber drops, and other considerations to make the project’s implementation easier.


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I would like to think that one person among the hundreds, or perhaps thousands involved in the project would have found it odd that the NSA, whose mandate prohibits spying within our borders, was suddenly doing just that. Instead it was months before the operation was brought to light. What is it about corporate life that allows individuals to ignore their personal ethics when presented with mandates from above?

The truth is, in a large corporation, there is always someone else to blame. “My boss said it was ok. There was a memo from the VP’s office. I thought someone else would have said something if there was a problem.” There are studies that show that the more witnesses there were to a crime, the less likely it was for any individual to intercede. This concept finds it its full flower in the corporate world, especially when combined with the fear of losing your job. We have seen it with Worldcom. We have seen it with Enron. Hundreds of witnesses to various wrong-doings and rarely does anyone say a thing.

The Personal Stink Test (PST)

So how do we, as high-tech workers break free of blind obedience and focus attention on the stupid, if not illegal actions of the companies where we work? The most important action we can take to protect the rights of those around us, and indeed, our own rights, is to apply what I call the “Personal Stink Test.” If some project, action or directive was applied to you, personally, how would you feel? If some governmental entity was allowed to closely monitor your Internet traffic with no provocation on your part, how would you feel? If a company instituted a questionable fee that you, personally, had to pay, how would you feel? If your company was systematically cheating you out of a pension or looting your pension fund, personally, how would you feel?

If you find that you would be personally offended if your company or government took any of these actions towards you, then you should be just as offended if it happens to others. In fact, in my earlier example, one of the largest users of AT&T Internet services, the workers themselves, were being monitored, just like all the anonymous customers. Wouldn’t this be a personal enough intrusion to cause some concern? Obviously not.

If something doesn’t pass your personal stink test, you owe it to yourself and everyone around you to ask some questions. If something doesn’t smell right to you, then most likely, there is a problem that needs addressing. If you don’t raise these issues, chances are very good that no one else will. Instead the problem will fester until it finally comes to the attention of law enforcement or the government, causing much more damage than it might have otherwise.

You can’t always assume that everything your company does is for the benefit of its employees or customers. In today’s world, company actions are often driven by greed, threats or simple stupidity. In all these cases, companies depended on the obedience of their employees or the ignorance of their customers. If you blindly or willingly assist in these actions you are not just hurting some abstract unknown person, you are actively hurting yourself. Self-preservation alone should be enough to make you question your company’s actions, but when it is combined with the ability to help thousands of other people, you should come to see it as a requirement for any job or career.

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