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You've Got (HP Spy) Mail!


What were they thinking? The news from the Hewlett-Packard Board Room gets weirder and weirder. First, there was the unceremonious ouster in 2005 of Carly Fiorina, one of the most well-known Fortune 500 women executives. Then came the news of bitter, poisonous in-fighting among board members. Soon we learned that Board Chair Patricia Dunn launched a secretive investigation to find out who among the Board of Directors was leaking information to a reporter. Dunn subsequently resigned as Board Chair, but she remains a director.

Today’s story in the Washington Post takes the drama to a new low. In a new demonstration of the dangerous lure of Powerpoint, the corporate lawyers and company president actually treated the board chair to a Powerpoint Presentation showing how they would invade and track the email of a reporter (from the San Francisco Chronicle) whom they suspected was receiving corporate inside information from a board member. A TV sitcom writer could not come up with a more ludicrous script, were it not so serious a violation of a number of common sense rules about professional responsibility, respect for privacy, and plain old ethics. The acts might also be illegal.

Why am I bothering to blog about this sad soap opera involving a venerable technology company? Among all of the examples of corporate shenanigans in recent years, this one strikes me as revealing behaviors that might actually come up in other workplaces where Trinity students might have to make some important ethical decisions. Enron and Worldcom were very serious cases about corporate greed and criminal conduct, but few workers actually participate in elaborate schemes involving massive corporate fraud. By contrast, the Hewlett-Packard case exposes behaviors that could come up in many other work situations.

Leaking corporate information is unethical, but so is spying on employees to find out what they’re doing. Trying to pry into someone else’s email, or taping phone calls, or asking an employee to assume a fictitious persona in order to get information from someone else all skirt ethical boundaries.

Trinity’s Honor System was created 100 years ago, long before anyone ever imagined a computer giant called Hewlett-Packard or a concept called e-mail. The beauty of the Honor System is its timeless expectation that members of the Trinity community will act ethically in all situations. While we certainly expect all students to uphold the Honor System in matters such as academic honesty and upholding community agreements here, we also hope that the expectations of Trinity Honor will go with our students into their careers.

I like to think that, in the future, if some corporate executive somewhere suggests the boneheaded idea of spying on a reporter’s email or tapping the phones of co-workers (and putting this idea into a Powerpoint presentation!), the Trinity graduate in the room would Just Say No. That’s the point of the Honor System.

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: