[SOURCE: Case modified from http://www.businessethics.ca; original author: Chris MacDonald; revision by Bob Kolodinsky and members of the Gilliam Center Advisory Council]
Janet Garner works in record-keeping as an administrative assistant for Eco-Waste Environmental Services (EWES), a small waste disposal company. EWES has enjoyed a strong reputation for ethical leadership in the waste management industry. In fact, the slogan the company uses in advertising and promotional materials is as follows: “Eco-Waste: Safe, Efficient, and Ethical Waste Disposal.”
In just three years with EWES, Janet has been promoted twice and has had three salary increases. Divorced and still in her 30s, and with two young children, she has come to love EWES’ flexible schedule, 4 weeks’ paid vacation, and generous health and dental insurance programs. From Janet’s perspective, everyone at EWES appears to do what is expected of them and all routinely recommend EWES as a good place to work. Janet seems to have found the perfect place to work.
Yesterday, however, Janet’s universally positive opinions about her employer were challenged. She now sits in her office reflecting upon what has happened during the past 24 hours and wonders what she should do next – if anything.
During a visit to the copy room yesterday, Janet accidentally came across a large envelope marked ‘CONFIDENTIAL.’ Always a curious person, she decided to take a quick peek inside and learned that her employer has been disposing some of a hospital client’s medical waste in a local municipal landfill. Janet was shocked. “Isn’t this illegal?” she wondered to herself. She quickly read through the documents, left them in the copy room, and departed.
Back in her office, Janet searched the internet and found that dumping ‘trace amounts’ of toxic medical waste is largely unavoidable and, if not proven to be intentional, is not against any law. But Janet suspected from the internal documents that her company (EWES) is intentionally dumping more than ‘trace’ amounts, though she couldn’t find on the internet any definition of what a ‘trace’ amount is. “This is crazy,” she thought to herself, “our competitive advantage is that our customers think we’re ethical!”
As she searched the internet for more information regarding acceptable versus unacceptable amounts of medical waste dumping, Janet was surprised to find that, in cases where small (more than ‘trace’) landfill amounts have been linked back to a waste disposal company, the government has not prosecuted violators. Perhaps most disturbing to Janet was her finding that, in cases where a company intentionally and improperly dumped large amounts of such medical waste in landfills, the offending companies only suffered fines; the government has never pursued criminal charges in any of the waste disposal cases!
Janet waited until she was the last person in the office. Her hope was that the envelope was still in the copy room -- which it was! Reading these internal documents more closely, Janet was somewhat relieved to find that her company appears to have dumped just very small (perhaps ‘trace’) amounts. But the documents also seem to indicate that her company is doing nothing to eliminate improper disposal of medical waste into landfills. According to several websites she searched, even ‘trace’ amounts apparently can cause injury or even death and thus clearly is a worrisome threat to public health.
One particularly bothersome issue for Janet is that she went out of her way to work for this company in part because of its highly ethical reputation and its regular public pronouncements about how much more environmentally sound its practices are relative to large competitors. Moreover, the company CEO is involved in several environmental non-profit organizations, regularly makes speeches about the importance of ethical behavior, and has funded an ethics professorship at the local university.
This morning Janet gathered the courage to talk with her immediate superior, Fred Lamb. After a brief conversation, during which Fred appeared surprised by what Janet had told him, he said, "I don't think this sort of thing is your concern or mine. We're in charge of record-keeping, not making decisions about medical waste disposal. Besides, for the first time ever, we’ve got this new compensation plan that promises to pay us all substantial bonuses for keeping profit margins high. I suggest you drop it."
After leaving Fred’s office, Janet quickly headed to the office of Angela Storm, the company's Vice President of Operations. Whereas Angela is usually a calm and patient person to speak with, today she is blunt and clearly irritated. After listening to Janet for a few minutes, Angela said, "Don’t you know the meaning of “confidential”?! Look, these are the sorts of cost-cutting moves that allow a smaller company like ours to compete against our larger competitors. Besides, everyone knows that the regulations in this area are overly cautious. There's no real danger to anyone from the tiny amount of medical waste that 'slips' into the municipal dump. I consider this matter closed."
Janet considers her situation. EWES does not have an ethics or compliance officer, so talking with such a person isn’t an option here. She thinks to herself, “What should I do?”
[NOTE: The events and persons in case are entirely fictional and not based on real companies or individuals. Any similarity to real persons or companies is purely accidental, though hopefully instructive.]
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