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Measuring the importance of ethical behavior criteria.

Increased reliance on information technology requires greater attention to ethical issues.

Due to the sensitive nature of and value associated with the different types of information required by today's managers, organizations must insist the accuracy of the information provided by their computer-based systems is above reproach. Unfortunately, recent cases involving software piracy, data theft, system espionage and employee monitoring have emphasized the unethical behavior that can accompany the use of information technology. Anecdotal experiences and past studies have indicated that two of the more common causes of the misapplication of information technology are: 1) the organization's computer system is not secure from unauthorized outside agencies and 2) the inside keepers of the information system(s) are not able/willing to operate in an ethical manner. As organizations become more reliant on IT, it is obvious that the actions of the information systems professionals can have a tremendous impact on the success or failure of their organizations. If the IS professional is to fill this strategic role, it is critical that individuals within the profession act in an ethical and responsible manner.

Currently three major professional IS associations have proposed ethical standards for the IS profession: the Data Processing Management Association (DPMA), the Institute for Certification of Computer Professionals (ICCP), and the ACM. A recent review of these codes found that, while these codes of conduct have many differing and conflicting principles, they also have several behavioral principles in common [2, 4]. These include statements about obligations to society; obligations to employer; obligations to clients: obligations to colleagues; obligations to professional organizations; and obligations to profession. Oz concluded these principles represent criteria that should be present within any comprehensive professional code of ethics and the IS profession must aspire to one coherent code of professional conduct if its members are to be recognized as professionals [5]. This study examined three issues related to the IS professional's evaluation of ethical behavior: 1) the impact of individual characteristics on the IS professional's ability to identify the role of certain decision criteria in his/her ethical evaluations; 2) to which set of ethical standards the IS professional is most likely to adhere (i.e., a professional code of ethics or a code of ethics set forth by the organization); and 3) the IS professional's ability and/or willingness to conduct himself/ herself in an ethical manner.

This study found that gender, whether the IS professional believed a code of ethics was needed, and/or whether the organization considered itself an ethical leader had no impact on the IS member's ability or inability to identify between the different ethical criteria tested in this study. However, age of the respondent and the respondent's position within the organization did significantly impact the respondent's ability to accurately identify the criteria they used in their evaluation of ethical behavior. The results also provided very little support for the idea that IS managers are guided by the ethical codes of conduct put forward by the IS professional associations. However, it is interesting to note that older individuals and those in higher-ranking positions appear to value the ethical criteria put forth by the different professional associations more than younger, less senior IS professionals do. It is not clear if this increased interest occurs with age and position or if it is the by-product of the older, more senior IS professional being raised in an earlier time period and/or social environment.

Method

As it is nearly impossible to observe and record the criteria used when evaluating an ethical situation, and because of the reported difficulty most decision makers have when presented with multiple criteria, it would seem logical to use a research method that reduces bias and overcomes the problems decision makers have using multiple criteria. Policy capturing, a simulation-based approach that has been used successfully to evaluate multiple-criteria decision-making processes in other management studies, was used in this study [1, 7-9]. This technique requires respondents to make decisions about situations defined by specific criteria or cues [3]. The values, as indicated by the decisions each respondent makes, are then regressed providing a slope for each independent variable. The rationale for letting regression coefficients represent the importance of the specific criteria is that the coefficients measure the change in the dependent variable (ethical behavior) per unit of change in each independent variable (ethical criteria).

The six principles/obligations identified by Oz were embedded in a questionnaire, along with demographic questions, to determine which principles/obligations were most important in determining the ethics of actions taken by IS professionals [4]. An analysis of the collected demographic information made it possible to determine whether the order of relative importance changed due to age, gender, or position; whether the IS professional believed a formal code of ethics is necessary; or if the organization considered itself an ethical leader in its industry. This research does not claim the six principles/obligations identified by Oz are the only factors that influence the ethical behavior of the IS professional. These principles/obligations were selected because, as suggested by Johnson and Oz [2, 4, 5], they represent a set of ethical criteria that should be present in codes of ethics to guide professional behavior. Figure 1 contains a sample scenario from this study. Each of the 32 decision scenarios used in the study was identical to the scenario provided in Figure 1 except the levels for the six criteria were changed.

Figure 1. An example scenario

For each of the scenarios given below, please circle the ethical behavior you believe best describes the behavior of the IS professional. Please consider each scenario carefully before making your decision.
Individual #0-Example

Considers the welfare of the public when performing   Yes
 her or her job
Performs assigned tasks to the best of his or her     No
 ability
Works diligently to satisify the organization's       Yes
 customers
Helps his or her colleagues and respects their        Yes
 work
Upholds the objectives of their professional          No
 organization for the common good of all members
Exhibits a strong commitment to the data              Yes
 processing profession




Please circle your ETHICAL decision based on the described scenario:
Very        Moderately   Neither Ethical   Moderately   Very
Unethical   Unethical    nor Unethical     Ethical      Ethical




Results

A sample of 500 IS professionals was randomly selected from members of the Data Processing Management Association (DPMA). Each of these individuals indicated that he or she: 1) worked for a nonacademic business unit, and 2) was currently working in an IS position. A pilot questionnaire was developed and sent to twenty IS professionals randomly selected from the original sample. The pilot questionnaire was then revised based on the feedback provided by these individuals. The revised questionnaire was sent to the remaining 480 DPMA members. The mailing provided 118 usable responses for a return rate of 24.6%.

The reliability or internal consistency of the respondents was evaluated by examining the adjusted [R.sup.2] (a measure of the explained variation in the dependent variable by the independent variables used in the regression model) of individual within-subject regressions. The [R.sup.2] ranged from 0.34 to 0.96, averaging 0.761. Seven responses were deleted from further analysis due to [R.sup.2] values below 0.50. Adjusted [R.sup.2] values below this threshold indicate a random application of the respondents' decision criteria [8]. This step assures that, on the whole, the respondents were consistent in their application of the decision criteria in their decision-making process.

Approximately 54% of the IS professionals described their position as either manager/director of information systems or chief information officer, while approximately 28% gave their job title as technical service manager, project manager, or programming manager. The remaining respondents indicated they were currently employed as programmers and/or analysts within their organization. The IS professionals were typically male (82.3%), had been active in the IS profession for approximately 22 years, and had earned either vocational or bachelor's degrees. Approximately two-thirds of these individuals said they believe a formal code of ethics is needed for IS professionals.

To investigate the issues raised in this study, we averaged the regression betas for each of the six criteria for all 111 responses (See Table 1). To determine if significant differences existed between the six criteria, an analysis of variance (ANOVA) was then conducted. The Tukey's Honestly Significant Differences (HSD)(1) test was calculated to determine which of the six criteria differed statistically from the other. Table 1 indicates, for example, that for respondents 40 years old or younger, there is no significant statistical difference between the first three criteria (labeled A); no significant statistical difference between the second through fifth criteria (labeled B); and no significant statistical difference between the third through sixth criteria (labeled C). Tukey's HSD does, however, suggest that the criteria in A are statistically different from B and the criteria in B are statistically different from the criteria in C.

[TABULAR DATA 1 NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]

To determine if demographics (such as age, gender, position within the IS organization, whether the IS professional believes a formal code of ethics is necessary, or the organization considers itself an ethical leader in its industry) changed the relative importance of the six ethical criteria, a similar analysis was performed for each pooled subcategory. Table 1 provides the results of an analysis into the impact of respondent age on the relative importance of the six criteria in assessing the ethical behavior of an IS professional.

All age groups included performance of assigned tasks to the best of his or her ability and working diligently to satisfy the organization's customers as being most important in evaluating the ethical behavior of an IS professional. However, the younger IS professionals (less than 41 years old) also considered the welfare of the public when performing his or her job as being equally important. All age groups indicated that a strong commitment to the data processing profession was least important in their evaluation of ethical behavior. Tukey's HSD indicated that each age group of IS professionals identified a different subset of the six ethical criteria as being least important.

Levels of employment changed the respondents' perception concerning the relative importance of each of the six criteria in assessing the ethical behavior of IS professionals (see Table 2). The results indicated IS professionals in the more senior positions used fewer criteria in assessing the ethicality of each scenario. Individuals who were typically employed in programming positions considered more criteria when making a decision about ethical behavior.

[TABULAR DATA 2 NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]

Older and/or more experienced IS professionals appeared to have a clearer understanding of the criteria they used in evaluating the ethicality of others' behavior. The younger and less experienced IS professionals generally did not appear to have developed this perceptiveness. This finding is not unexpected as older, more experienced IS professionals should have a better understanding of what is proper behavior for an IS professional. This understanding comes from, in part, the older IS professionals' experiences evaluating and being evaluated by other IS professionals. This finding lends support to arguments for the development of a standardized code of ethics for the IS profession. This code could be used to facilitate the growth process of the less experienced IS professionals in their understanding of ethical behavior.

Table 3 provides the results of a gender analysis on the relative criteria importance. Male IS professionals appeared to more clearly differentiate between the ethical criteria and the importance placed on each of the criteria. This difference can be partially explained by the small number of females (17 of 111) in this sample that were younger and/or lower-level IS professionals. Both females and males included performance of assigned tasks to the best of his or her ability and working diligently to satisfy the organization's customers as being most important in evaluating the IS professional's ethical behavior. Females also included the welfare of the public when performing one's Job as being equally Table 3 provides the results of a gender analysis on important. Neither group indicated that a strong commitment to the data processing profession was important in their evaluation of ethical behavior. Caution should be used in interpreting the results of the female portion due to the limited sample size (n = 17).

[TABULAR DATA 3 NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]

The belief that a formal code of ethics is or is not necessary and/or working for an organization that considered itself an ethical leader within its industry did have a significant impact on how IS professionals assigned relative importance to the six criteria tested (see Tables 4 and 5). Each set of IS professionals included performance of assigned tasks to the best of his or her ability and working diligently to satisfy the organization's customers as most important in evaluating the ethical behavior of an IS professional. Each set also indicated that a strong commitment to the data processing profession was least important in their evaluation of ethical behavior.

[TABULAR DATA 4-5 NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]

Interestingly, individuals working in organizations that considered themselves ethical leaders in their industry and individuals who believed a formal code of ethics is necessary more finely differentiated between the ethical criteria they considered most important. This finding was not unexpected. Organizations that consider themselves to be ethical leaders probably have taken the time to define, evaluate, and communicate what behaviors are considered appropriate for their employees. Also, individuals who believed that formal codes of ethics are necessary within the IS profession have typically given considerable thought to the criteria and their order of importance in the evaluation of ethicality of behavior. One implication of this finding is that less experienced IS professionals would benefit from working for organizations that have well-established ethical codes in place. Professional development requires not only technical growth, but also the development of the individual's ability to recognize ethical situations and make ethical decisions.

Limitations

The present research is limited by a number of factors. The first limitation pertains to the decision-modeling procedure used for this study. Although respondents were presented with six decision criteria derived from Johnson [2] and Oz [4], other criteria may also influence the respondent's evaluation of other IS professionals' ethical behavior.

Another possible limitation of this study could be the method by which the scenarios were presented in the research instrument. Finally, the small sample was drawn from a single IS professional association (DPMA), which limits the generalizibility of the findings. It is also possible that the description of "obligation to the data processing profession" does not tap the desired information of commitment to a professional area. Therefore, further research to define the construct is required to validate this survey.

Conclusion

The results of this study should be encouraging to and also a cause for concern for managers and IS professionals. Managers should be encouraged that the IS professionals placed significantly more emphasis on two organization-focused criteria (performing assigned tasks to the best of his or her ability and working diligently to satisfy the organization's customers) than on more cosmopolitan criteria [6]. This local focus, however, could also be a cause of concern for organizations that do not have well-developed codes of ethical conduct. Individuals must be confident that the information provided by the organization's information systems is above reproach and this can occur only if the IS professional's ethics are above reproach.

Managers and IS professionals should also be concerned by the apparent lack of understanding the respondents have in how they actually apply the criteria they use in an ethical evaluation of other IS professionals. The results of this study suggest that managers and older, more experienced IS professionals should take proactive steps that clearly identify and teach the ethical views of their particular organization (i.e., mentoring programs, top management involvement, institutionalizing ethical practices, development of a "living" code of ethics) and the IS profession in general. The authors believe professional development in the IS profession requires not only technical growth, but also the development of the individual's ethical standards.

The IS profession should also be concerned by the apparent lack of commitment the respondents proclaim for professional associations like the DPMA, ICCP and ACM. All of the subgroups studied rated the categories upholds the objectives of their professional organization for the common good of all members and exhibits a strong commitment to data processing profession as not being important criteria in their ethical evaluation of other IS professionals. This raises an interesting question about the role and/or effectiveness of these organizations in the development of ethical standards for the IS profession. Other professions (i.e., doctors, lawyers, accountants, and engineers) have developed standardized codes of ethical behavior that guide and nurture the ethical development of their members. If the IS profession is to achieve comparable professional status, can or should organizations such as the DPMA, ICCP, and the ACM work together to develop one standardized code of ethics? Further, business managers must help bolster the development of an IS professional code of ethics or risk a loss of faith in their organization's information systems. In order to achieve this professional code, these organizations would have to develop proactive programs that would increase the commitment of their members to their professional organizations, and must also improve communication as to the specific content and application of any standardized professional code of ethics.

(1) Tukey's HSD is a statistical method by which all possible pairs of population means can be tested for significant differences.

REFERENCES

[1.] Butler, J.K., Jr. and Cantrell, R.S. A behavioral decision theory approach to modeling dyadic trust in superiors and subordinates. Psychological Reports, 55 (1984), 19-28.

[2.] Johnson, D.G. Computer Ethics. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1985.

[3.] Lane, D.M., Murphy, K.R., and Marques, T.E. Measuring the importance of cues in policy capturing. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance 30, (1982), 231-240.

[4.] Oz, E. Ethical standards for computer professionals: A comparative analysis of four major codes. J. Business Ethics, 12 (1993), 709-726.

[5.] Oz, E. Ethical standards for information system professionals: A case for a unified code. MIS Q. 16, 4 (1992), 423-433.

[6.] Raelin, J.A. Professional and business ethics: Bridging the gap. Management Review 78, 11 (1989), 39-42.

[7.] Slovic, P., and Lechtenstein, S. Comparison of Bayesian and regression approaches to the study of information processing in judgement. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance 6 (1971), 649-744.

[8.] Spencer, B.A., and Butler, J.K., Jr. Measuring the relative importance of social responsibility components: A decision modeling approach. J. Business Ethics 6, (1987), 573-577.

[9.] Stahl, M.J., and Zimmerer, T.W. Modeling strategic acquisition policies: A simulation of executives' acquisition decisions. Academy of Management Journal 27, 2 (1984), 369-383.

[10.] Vitell, S.J., and Davis, D.L. Ethical beliefs of MIS professionals: The frequency and opportunity for unethical behavior. J. Business Ethics 9, 1 (1990), 63-70.

J. Michael Pearson (jpearson@stcloudstate.edu) is an associate professor in the Business Computer Information Systems Department at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota.

Leon Crosby (crosbyle@esumaii.emporia.edu) is an assistant professor in the Management, Marketing, Finance and Economics Division of Emporia State University in Kansas.

J. P. Shim (jshim@cobilan.msstate.edu) is a professor in the Department of Management and Information Systems at Mississippi State University.
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Author:Pearson, J. Michael; Crosby, Leon; Shim, J.P.
Publication:Communications of the ACM
Date:Sep 1, 1997
Words:3218
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