Here's a guiding philosophy most leaders would
agree with, "It's easier to ask for forgiveness, than to beg for
permission." This is how we get things done. We see something that
needs doing and do it. No running around checking with everyone to ensure
it's the 'right' thing to do. We act, and if necessary, make our apologies
We're even proud of this behaviour, but it's easy to push the concept
beyond an ill-defined fuzzy boundary, to where it becomes unethical. When
we do things we know we'll have to apologize for later, then we've crossed
that fuzzy line.
Why this concern with the ethics of crossing fuzzy lines? Because
sometimes, it's possible for someone to shift those 'ethical' boundaries
until traditional business practices are called into question. An example
of this is Canada's Personal Information Protection and Electronic
The Act was put together by business, consumers, academics and government
under the guidance of the Canadian Standards Association. It contains 10
guiding principles for the fair management of personal information. The
Act's worthy objective is to give individuals control over how their
personal information is used in the private sector.
One of these 10 principles deals with the issue of 'Consent', part of it
reads, businesses must "Obtain the individual's consent before, or at
the time of collection, as well as when a new use is identified." The
act goes further and includes a Grandfather clause to cover data you've
already collected before the Act became a reality... "Since it has
already been collected, you don't need to recollect it. However, in order
to continue to use or disclose this information, you now require
So much for apologizing after the fact. To demonstrate the slippery
ethical slope, let's use a simple example of some basic information not
even covered by the Act. (i.e.. name, title, business address or telephone
number) Over the years, I've
collected tens of thousands of business cards and e-mail addresses. When
do I cross the 'ethical' boundary? When I mail out brochures advertising
my consulting services? When I send out an e-mail announcing a new
speaking topic? When I sell my list to a third party? To remain ethical...
must I send them an e-mail to get their permission to send them an e-mail?
The Act is well intentioned. Privacy is a legitimate concern shared by all
citizens. The 10 guiding principles of: 'Accountability', 'Identifying
purpose', 'Consent', 'Limiting collection', 'Limiting use, disclosure, and
retention', 'Accuracy', 'Safeguards', 'Openness', 'Individual access',
'Challenging compliance.' are all necessary, but the real solution to the
issue of privacy doesn't reside in the text of the Act...
George Radwanski, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada in his introductory
message on the Privacy site, makes the following observation, "I'm
hopeful that, for most businesses, the administration of the Act will feel
more like self-regulation than government regulation. ...the privacy
principles and fair information practices set out in the Act are not
difficult to understand: they are good business practice, and they make
good sense." Self-regulation is the key to compliance, and being a
good corporate citizen.
The basic concept underlying 'Privacy' is that the individual owns their
personal information and should have control over how it is used. How that
gets interpreted in the corporate world depends more on the Ethical
philosophy of the company, than on the legal interpretation of a
Of course, getting everyone to dance to the same ethical drum is going to
take some doing. Even in the simplest of ethical debates, it's not
uncommon to encounter widely differing opinions. This is fine as long as
the scenario under discussion is some hypothetical situation with no
corporate impact. It's another thing entirely if it's about customer
The 10 Principles of the Act are a good place to start. Who in your
organization makes decisions regarding either customer contact or the use
of customer information? Should they spend some time discussing/debating
the 10 Principles? The more they're aware of the new rules, the less
likely they'll step over the fuzzy lines.
Personal rules of behavior that worked well in the past, will get us into
some interesting trouble in the future, unless we take to time to see
where the ethical lines have shifted.
Peter de Jager – Peter is passionate about change, how it affects both
individuals and organizations and allows them to grow and prosper. To contact him, and
host internal seminars on Change visit www.technobility.com
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