Ethics and Technology: A Case Study

A study of long-distance calls at the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that 30% were personal calls charged to the government. It estimated the cost to the agency at $290,000. Many calls went to employee’s homes or their relatives. Others went to prerecorded messages for time and temperature, horoscopes, and finance. We must understand why employees use official telephone lines in this way before considering how to limit misuse, respond to arguments that the misuse is necessary, and consider the effects on morale that enforcement would carry. However, seen in the proper light, the ethical quandaries dissolve by effectively bringing technology to bear to meet human needs.

How do employees justify misuse of phone lines? Beyond their loyalty to the organization and its policies, workers feel a primary loyalty to family and loved ones. Should the administrator put the guidelines of her workplace above her family’s needs? Finer (1941) states “the servants of the public are not to decide their own course” (p. 7). But, such a sweeping mandate guarantees conflicts of loyalty when the course decided by the rules precludes family contact.

In determining what could be done to limit misuse, we first should evaluate the rules. We cannot simply accept all the rules handed down to us as some implacable moral mandate. HUD could, instead, come up with creative solutions. HUD could set up a private room or booths with phones dedicated to long-distance personal calls, and get reduced rates on those lines. When calling cards were popular, HUD could have received a corporate group rate on blocks of cards and resold them to employees at less than the individual market rate. Everyone could win.

HUD may have an expense problem, but making a nonsensically restrictive rule fails to address human needs. It only says that dollars matter more than people. In such a system, a person becomes dehumanized to the point of being what Max Weber (1958) called “only a single cog in an ever-moving mechanism which prescribes to him an essentially fixed route of march” (p. 228). The solution lies in treating people humanely, acknowledging that all have personal lives, and creating a system to effectively meet those needs. Simply slapping a rule book down on the desk typifies bureaucracies. Rife with inertia and resistant to change, they often “act as a brake on innovation and change” (Tompkins, 2005, p. 55).

Can we imagine that using agency lines for personal use might be necessary at times? Yes. Using agency phone lines for personal use can become absolutely necessary. On the day of the World Trade Center attacks, no one at the university hospital where I worked argued about the ethical use of phone lines. They called their loved ones. They called their colleagues in New York. They called their families stuck in far-flung airports when the planes grounded. The drain on the phone system may have been massive. It did not matter. We had no ethical quandary, only the need to connect with loved ones in an emergency. The problem is not the personal use of phones. It is the rules. When we make a nonsensical rule that separates a mother from a daughter injured in a car wreck, we must re-examine the rules. When we cannot call a grandfather in the hospital despite sitting next to a phone, we must re-examine the rules. Rules must be made to serve people, not the other way around.

If you cut people off from their loved ones in the course of their work, morale of course will suffer. People have lives outside of the narrow confines of their employment. Those lives and the people in them form the reasons people work in the first place. The answer to serving both the job and the family lies in technology.

True, new technologies often create new ethical puzzles to solve. But, technology can also solve old ethical problems. Now that virtually everyone in the U.S. labor force has their own cell phone, no one should worry that they cannot contact their loved ones from work. With the ubiquitous connection to the internet in offices, no one needs to call a phone number to check weather. Finding the weather on the internet does not incur a single penny more in cost! Twenty years ago, people had to take time off to stand in line for four hours at the Motor Vehicle Department to renew their registrations. If they had used up their leave, they might face the quandary of lying about sick days. Now, people can log on to the MVD site to have their registration renewed for two years in about 10 minutes. Done on a lunch break or by staying ten minutes after work, this increases costs not at all.

None of this means that workers did not once face an ethical challenge about personal calls or that their actions were completely justified. But, this case seems a bit outdated. Technology has largely solved the problem. When asked to make a judgment call about whether some actions are right or wrong, we might be better off asking if the system needs fixed. By bringing innovation and technology into play to better serve fundamental human needs like connection to loved ones, we can eliminate many ethical dilemmas. We can improve the human condition. Sometimes the rules do not serve us well. It is up to us to change them.


Finer, H. (1941). Administrative responsibility in democratic government. London: University of London.

Tompkins, J. R. (2005). Organization theory and public management. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Weber, M. (1958). Politics as a vocation. In H. H. Gerth and C. W. Mills, Eds., Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press.

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