The Ethics of Web Work

We’ve all devoted a tremendous amount of effort to figuring out how to move forward in this new world of web work. Ask us to set up a laptop or organize a task list or find a way to network with our peers and we’ve got a pretty good idea how to get started. But some other parts of the web work story are less clear. For instance, have you ever thought about the ethics of web work? That is, how do you know what behavior is right and wrong in this new sort of workplace?

Some of this is covered by your particular profession. For instance, if you’re a software developer, you can look to the Code of Ethics and Professional Practice worked out by the ACM and IEEE. But the ethical concerns covered by such codes – act consistently with the public interest, act in the interest of your client, and so on – are not unique to web work. What about the new issues raised by telework, the digital bedouin lifestyle, and working in multiple virtual teams?

There’s one ten-year-old academic paper that tackles some of the telework issues. “Teleworking Ethics,” by Ruth Guthrie and Janet Pick, used a survey to sample attitudes towards some potential ethical dilemmas in the field. While I don’t trust their survey sample to be representative of the current industry, some of their cases are worth considering when defining the limits of ethical behavior. For instance, which of these do you think are ethical behavior?

  • Doing personal work on company time as long as you stay available by phone and email.
  • Holding down two full-time jobs by telecommuting to both.
  • Making personal phone calls while waiting for data sets to download (and staying on the company clock).
  • Checking personal phone bills to verify that people were actually online and working.
  • Telecommuting from a bar when your boss thinks you’re working at home.

As we move out of cubicles and on to the web, some of the rules of the game seem to be changing. Your attitude towards which behaviors are ethical may be another data point in the busyness vs. burst dichotomy. Those who are most comfortable with the old-style busy economy will tend to see ethics on the side of tradition and control: the worker owes a duty to the company to be actively engaged at all times, because there is an exchange of money for time agreed to by both parties. The bursters, on the other hand, will be more comfortable ethically with any behavior that gets the job done, seeing the exchange as one of money for productivity.

Still, there are limits to ethical behavior, no matter how far you’ve moved away from the traditional busyness economy. Outright fraud, for example, should be unethical in anyone’s book (though, sadly, I’ve known web workers who billed hourly on the basis of “what the client expected the job would take” instead of the hours they actually spent). One useful touchstone for many cases is to ask yourself what you’d think of your own behavior if you were on the other side of the table. If a subcontractor acted the way you’re acting, would you be OK with it? If not, it’s time to think some more about your own ethics.

Have you run into ethical dilemmas in your own web work? How did you resolve them?


Comments have been disabled for this post