I am a software engineer in an USA local government setting. Recently they sent out a survey asking about how people where feeling about an upcoming reorganization/job reclassification. Now, an important note, nothing says that the survey is anonymous and It never explicitly asks for your name. It's using system data to figure out who submitted the survey but nothing says that it isn't either.

Now,I have been given the task of not only moving all the survey results to a database, but also ranking the comments on how positive/negative they are. Now, I know from the specs that upper management will be able to see who wrote what comments. Which I consider to be alarming because I was trained in TCPS 2 core(Human experimentation ethics) during college, and I know this would be wrong to allow such identifying information at least for TCPS.They have already indicated they want to use the information for good, but they could also use it for negative reasons.

No one is saying that upper management will retaliate. But several comments I have read fear retribution, and say they don't trust upper management. And there is the issue that I was told this is a secret project and I shouldn't tell anyone about it.

Bottom line: What is my responsibility? Is this ethical? Should I bring this to anyone's attention? I want to help protect my coworkers, even though I am leaving the company

Post: Thank you all for the wonderful answers, I have since brought up the idea of blocking, obfuscating or otherwise hiding the names of people id'ed in the survey, my request has been ignored and I have been asked to ID their union as well.....

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    This might not be important to any answers, but can you spell out what TCPS is? I can't easily find reference to it. – curt1893 May 7 at 17:19
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    @curt1893 it's a course on ethics in dealing with humans in regards to academic and professional settings. – trinityalps May 7 at 17:33
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    @jean it's through an online system that doesn't ask for the name, but it does grab the name on the backend. I am not using port info, but still, you don't put your name in. – trinityalps May 7 at 17:45
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    A survey auto fills your name on it must be clear about it or people will (wrong) guess it's anonymous, It's a trap!. Maybe your job is ok but the guy made the survey (and his boss) can be unethical – jean May 7 at 17:54
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    You may want to be more clear about what is happening. I think many people assume "re-organization" is changes in management or department organizational hierarchy. What you are describing sounds more like job reclassification within a negotiated contract. Two very different things. – cdkMoose May 7 at 18:39
up vote 6 down vote accepted

What is my responsibility?

Do your job. Move the results into a database as instructed, do not put your job at risk. Your situation is uncomfortable no doubt, but not beyond reason.

Is this ethical?

I have to admit, this situation sure seems like its dancing on the ethics line a bit. Your only real recourse would be to anonymously blow the whistle on the survey, but I still think you would be at risk potentially for retaliation.

Should I bring this to anyone's attention?

Another tricky question...whose attention could you bring it to without putting yourself at risk? If you have a safe path, take it. If you do not, be careful not to put yourself in the line of fire.

  • Because of government, there are unions who I could try talking to. But, I don't know how much help they would be. – trinityalps May 7 at 17:31
  • @trinityalps My educated guess is your right, they would be of little help. – Mister Positive May 7 at 17:32
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    Also I plan on quiting anyways, so I am more worried of jeopardizing future jobs, not this one. – trinityalps May 7 at 17:43
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    I do not agree with "blindly do your job" comments. I think we all have a certain degree on responsibility regarding our actions, even if those actions are ordered by above. You are the one doing it. – Mr Me May 8 at 14:11
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    The “do your job” folks forget that many people like the OP actually listen to their conscience and raise questions within themselves and to others when something doesn’t seem right. The survey as described seems deceptive and could very well be intended to lead respondents to believe they have anonymity when in fact their identities could be the central focus of the survey. That’s odious and the OP should, at least, raise a concern to his boss. Of course, the response may not be positive and could stunt future career growth in that place but the OP will sleep better at night. – teego1967 May 8 at 18:23

If it didn't say it was anonymous, you should assume it wasn't. IANAL, but I think a survey is only anonymous if it actually says so. You can't assume anonymity just because you think it should be.

Collating the results of a non-anonymous survey is not an ethical problem. I'm not sure how secret the project can really be, since these people filled out a survey and should expect that someone is actually going to look at the results. It would probably be better if the management made their rules and expectations clear, but they haven't broken any laws based on the info provided.

If they actually take improper action against an employee because of the survey responses, then that would be unethical and/or illegal, but until that happens, they haven't crossed the line.

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    Okay, but who would ever know? It's a secret, so if they do something shady, no one would know the survey was the reason for it. – trinityalps May 7 at 17:40
  • You're right, maybe no-one, but it's not unethical until something actually happens. We can't take action just because we think they might do something bad. There are plenty of situations where someone could do something bad and they don't. Lacking any evidence to prove otherwise, I always start from "assume good intent" – cdkMoose May 7 at 17:43
  • this is not to mention, again I have read many of the comments. Most people are afraid and do not trust our employer. There is already an expectation people will be fired over this due to being redundant. But who is to say they won't fire those who are redundant and also hate the reorg? – trinityalps May 7 at 17:55
  • That may be true that people feel that way, but that doesn't make it fact that management will act inappropriately. Don't assume – cdkMoose May 7 at 17:57
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    Management can clear this up by stating, clearly, on the survey that the responses are not anonymous. If they don’t, then they're attempting to obfuscate their intentions and that’s not ethical. – teego1967 May 8 at 18:26

What is my responsibility?

Your responsibility is to raise concerns. Regardless of what you are ever working on, and who you are working for, your first responsibility as a developer is to raise any concerns you have about a project before undertaking the work.

In some situations, these will be technical concerns. In others, like this one, it's a business concern. Here, you have a legitimate concern that this survey will undermine the trust of those involved, and could lead to ineffective surveys in future - as such, it should be raised to whoever can best just the benefit/cost of it (your superior).

Once you have a concrete decision, you then need to proceed as instructed. As you would if this was a technical issue, once somebody superior has evaluated your concerns and decided on a course of action - it is no longer your responsibility to try to change it.

However, you should not ever proceed blindly without having raised these concerns - doing so would be unprofessional. It is your job to ensure your superiors are well informed in their decision making, in respect to any potential problems you foresee.

Is this ethical?

Whether it ultimately is or is not ethical, does not change that you have a valid concern about it. The most you need to do to fulfill your ethical and professional duties is to raise the concern.

Of course, in situations where the ethics are beyond what you're willing to be involved in - the answer is to be prepared to quit. There is ultimately no way to prevent the work being carried out; you can at most leave the company to avoid being involved.

Should I bring this to anyone's attention?

Absolutely. To have any justified concerns about a project, of any kind, and not raise them is unprofessional. One of your duties as a professional, is to maintian the quality and standards of the business, and to protect it's interests.

The concern you raise should not be focused on personal issues with the work though. They must be business related issues, such as the undermining of trust in future surveys, and not simply that it feels wrong.

Importantly, once you have raised the concern - you must accept that the decision is out of your hands. Raising the concern fulfils your duty, and if a superior decides to continue on what you see as a flawed strategy - you have to assume they have good reason to do so.

What is my responsibility?

Your responsibility is to do your job as instructed by your boss.

Is this ethical?

Yes. Your employer wants to move the results of their survey to a database, and have some analysis done on the results. Nothing unethical about it.

Should I bring this to anyone's attention?

No, unless you are having some trouble carrying out the instructions (for example, you don't know where the database should be placed), in which case you should bring it to your boss' attention and do as he instructs.

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    @Jack Just saying, Edward Snowden is a modern-day Edward Snowden :) – Ernest Friedman-Hill May 8 at 11:22
  • -1: secretly recording personal information in a survey is (in my opinion) clearly unethical, illegal when and where GDPR will apply, and wrong according to what the OP has been taught – BauerPower May 8 at 17:00
  • @BauerPower Where do you find in the question that 1. personal information is being recorded and 2. it is being secretly recorded? Why do you assume that the GDPR will apply in the US? Also, do you notice that the OP edited the question to include additional details after I posted my answer? – Masked Man May 8 at 17:05
  • @Masked Man The responses to the survey are personal information when the responder can be identified. Obviously GDPR doesn't apply in the US, I mention it to show that I'm not just a crazy person with an opinion nobody shares. – BauerPower May 8 at 17:16
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    @BauerPower Also, I took the question "is it unethical?" to mean "Is it unethical for me to analyze the survey data as instructed by my boss?", because that's all there was to the question when I answered it. I didn't think it meant "is it unethical for the employer to use the survey in the manner described here?" – Masked Man May 8 at 17:25

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