The clash between ethics and maintaining privacy is far more common than you might think. It’s not always easy to maintain someone’s privacy when ethics are being questioned.
Even more importantly, choosing to shine the spotlight on an ethics issue may be considered a violation of someone else’s privacy. Either way, there are ways to deal with it.
Confidentiality agreements and oaths often mean you can’t speak up without legally violating a client’s or business’s trust. For instance, therapists who feel someone may be considering hurting another person are caught between keeping their patient’s secret and reporting a threat to the police to save a life. The same happens with social workers. In fact, there’s even a section in the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics that helps handle this issue. They can report a person who they feel may seriously pose a danger to themselves or others.
Still, betraying trust isn’t easy. Even outside of life or death situations, there are other ways of betraying trust. For instance, when should businesses be allowed to share information about their users? Is earning extra income from third parties a good enough reason? Or, should it only happen in the event of a warrant? For example, was it ethical for Dropbox to compromise user privacy in the name of research?
Hearing What You Shouldn’t
Another situation where ethics and maintaining privacy happen is when someone hears or reads something that wasn’t intended for them. For instance, perhaps a memo was placed in the wrong box or a text was sent to the wrong number. Should the person speak up, especially if they don’t know the full context?
It’s a fine line to walk and one that could ruin lives. However, if you notice something unethical, it’s still your job to report it. On the other hand, make sure you know the full story before acting.
Finally, ethics and maintaining privacy tend to clash most when it comes to protecting whistleblowers. Legally, they should be protected.
Those in charge of investigating issues have two choices. First, try to blindly investigate without all the facts or proof from the whistleblower. This can work, but in the end, those committing ethics crimes are more likely to get away with it if a full investigation is not completed.
The second option is to follow up with the whistleblower. This is more likely to help put an end to ethics issues, but it can ruin the privacy of the whistleblower. Of course, while the investigation is going on, it’s important to protect the privacy of the accused as well, since it’s innocent until proven guilty. Making the accusation public can ruin an innocent person’s reputation if they’re actually innocent.
As a business or organization, it’s vital to make whistleblowers feel safe before, during and after filing a report. Maintaining privacy isn’t always easy or clear, but it’s a vital part of ethics. It is far easier to maintain this privacy with an anonymous ethics hotline. These hotlines enable the whistleblower and the investigator to have on-going anonymous conversation about the situation. This also enables a more thorough investigation.