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April 20, 2001

They did what?

© 2001, Douglas E. Welch

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A few weeks ago an Irvine, California-based Internet ad company suddenly had a light shown on its internal business practices.
It seems that someone in the company, perhaps a disgruntled employee, posted the instant messaging logs from the CEO's computer on the Web. The logs seemed to show that the CEO, and other executives, were involved in a variety of schemes to defraud vendors, affiliates and employees. Regardless of the validity of these claims the entire incident points up several important rules that we all should keep in mind as we do business.

Get out!

The first and foremost rule I would like to reinforce is that of ethics. Time and time again I see stories of how businesses, not just high-tech businesses, fall back on questionable ethical practices. These ethical lapses can take many forms -- overcharging clients, postponing vendor payments or payroll even though money exists, negotiating/renegotiating onerous contracts. No matter what the ethical lapse, it is important for all of us to remember that we do not have to go along.

While it might seem impossible to give up a job just because of unethical management, if you stay the consequences could be much worse. If you stay you could end up losing not only your job but also your reputation. As this recent incident shows, anyone who was mentioned in the CEO's log was also immediately suspect. No matter who may have started the unethical behavior, the taint quickly spread to anyone ever involved with the company. Even those executives who attempted a company coup d'etat and resigned after it failed were still suspect. Why hadn't they left sooner? Why didn't they do some thing? Were they an active party in the alleged fraud? This taint will follow them for years.

Even if you don't feel that you are in a position to confront unethical behavior you owe it to yourself to distance yourself from it as quickly as possible. If someone wants to destroy their own career, and possibly be brought up on criminal charges, make sure they aren't taking you down with them. There is no high-tech job worth doing jail time.

Be aware

There is a good side to the exposure of ethically-challenged behavior, too. It will make it easier and easier to weed out business people who seem to be ethically challenged. The discussion about this particular company and its executives is now a part of the "Internet Archive." For years to come people will be able to do a simple search and find long discussions about the past dealings of this company. Hopefully, this will mean that fewer people will be taken in by unscrupulous business people.

Whenever you partner with another company or interview for a job you would be wise to perform a few Web searches to insure that there aren't some skeletons in their company closet. While you certainly won't want to take every message as totally valid representation of the company, a preponderance of complaints might allow you to look more closely at the company and people involved.

I can hear you

The final important lesson to be learned here is that if you use an insecure, Internet-based messaging tool, and this can mean ICQ, AOL Instant Messenger or even email, be very careful what you say and how you say it. Without the normal visual cues many messages can be taken wildly out of context. You must remember at every possible moment that anyone might read what you are typing. Any information that travels over the Internet should be assumed no more private than using a CB radio. Something as simple as a posting on a message board or a forwarded email could open you up to scrutiny you might not want.

If you find yourself in an ethical "gray area" in your high-tech career your best decision is to put as much distance between the company and yourself as you can. Expose illegal behavior if you can. Your experience can help others avoid troublesome people or companies. Remember, though, that high-tech employees live and die on their reputations and their experience. You don't want an ethical millstone around your neck dragging down both you and your career.

about this column.

Douglas E. Welch is a freelance writer and computer consultant in Van Nuys, California. Readers can discuss career issues with other readers by joining the Career Opportunities Discussion on Douglas' web page at:

He can reached via email at

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