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Jewish World Review Nov. 30, 1999 /21 Kislev, 5760

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'Justified' or not, stealing is still wrong -- THE WALL STREET JOURNAL (Oct. 21, 1999) coined the term "virtual morality" in the headline to its story on cheating and stealing in the workplace. "The explosion of the Internet into the workplace has empowered millions of employees, in a matter of keystrokes, to quietly commandeer company property for personal use. ...And ethical questions are mushrooming ...," the article stated.

According to the WSJ report, folks are not only using their employers' Internet facilities to shop or play games. They are making stock deals, sending out e-mails supporting some politician's election, searching for a new job, chatting on hate Web sites, viewing and downloading pornography and so forth.

To counteract such behaviors, many companies have resorted to cyber eavesdropping, or Internet surveillance systems, which can instantly generate logs of precisely who went to what sites at what time.

In addition to keeping track of alleged wrongdoing inside the company, Lockheed Martin Corp. is taking an educational approach. Using customized computer programs, its employees can go online for step-by-step training on ethics and legal compliance. The system records each time an employee completes one of the sessions, which include sexual harassment, insider trading, kickbacks, gratuities and so forth. The program alerts managers to employees who haven't yet taken required sessions.

The WSJ also performed a workplace-ethics survey, sampling a cross-section of workers at large companies and nationwide. The results were disheartening. We are, as a society, long past the time when honor and integrity were the mainstay of our individual identity and desired reputation. For example, only about one-third said using company computers for personal e-mail or personal work is wrong. Only about one-half said playing computer games or online shopping are wrong. Thankfully, only 13 percent of the respondents felt it is ethical to visit pornographic sites at work.

After reading some of these figures to my radio audience, I asked for feedback: Have you done something unethical at work, and if so, how do you justify it? The responses were illuminating.

One woman related being on her own from age 17 because her mother was involved in serial shack-ups. "I was working at our small-town drugstore. They continued to schedule me for substantial overtime hours, but just refused to pay overtime. When I mentioned it not being legal, the owner politely said I could choose to quit if I did not want to work there.

Being without a car in a small town, I had very few options. That's when I justified taking things I needed. I calculated the amount of overtime I was owed and just took it in toilet paper, soap, etc. I do know, and did then, that it was stealing, regardless of how you justify it."

Another woman, working for a nonprofit organization whose mission is to build homes for orphans in foreign countries, often kept some donated items she fancied (a pair of shoes, a blanket or quilt, a book or toy for a gift, etc.). Perhaps she figured a few small items didn't matter -- and besides, she was "doing good." After 15 years, she owned up and made a contribution equal to the value of what she had appropriated. Her confession was accepted graciously and her conscience cleared.

A most disheartening and frequent excuse is that "I think everyone does it. Why shouldn't I?" This was the last line in a letter admitting "using the postage meter, telephone and fax for my own personal communication. Using the company car to go places not related to work. Making up appointments to have an excuse for time off. Taking longer or not coming back from real appointments."

Many people reported stealing pens, note pads, cotton balls, a tablet folder, latex gloves, stamps, highlighters -- small stuff -- because "we have a lot in stock and no one will notice if one is missing. This is what they call a victimless crime. Even though I'm not hurting anyone except myself, I realize it is still wrong." Many respondents reported this sense of "not hurting anyone," not realizing that morale, overhead and profits ultimately impact real people. Perhaps this sentiment is indicative of the alienation workers in larger companies now feel.

In a discussion of the Eighth Commandment, "You shall not steal," in my book "The Ten Commandments," I list many of these same excuses as rationales for stealing, including, "I'm not hurting anyone," "I deserve it," "I haven't really taken anything," "Everyone else does it."

"The human capacity to rationalize behavior allows people to ease their conscience by attempting to diminish the apparent seriousness of the act. Rationalizing eventually has people deluding themselves into believing that their actions are not wrong."

Nowhere is this more evident than in our behavior in the workplace. But there is no acceptable form of stealing. This behavior is not only anti-social and narcissistic -- it's immoral. Period.

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©1999, Dr. Laura Schlessinger. This feature may not be reproduced or distributed electronically, in print or otherwise without the written permission of Universal New Media and Universal Press Syndicate.