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I have been navigating the workplace in hopes of finding a similar situation with a solution, but unfortunately I have had no such luck (perhaps by fault of my own). A friend of mine (lets call them V) recently confronted me about an ethical dilemma they are having and have reached out for my advice, to which I was unsure on how to proceed as well.

V has started a new position at their company, and has gone through several trainings on how to properly conduct their responsibilities and routines. These routines involve recording data that a program outputs. This process can be very tedious and sometimes require several program re-runs to get acceptable values. V has made sure to always perform the tests as directed, as tedious as it may be. Furthermore , V's boss has made it clear that falsifying any data would result in disciplinary action (most likely termination based on other departments incidents). Occasionally, with personnel outage, a higher up member will cover for a member of the team.

In comes the ethical dilemma. By accident V discovered several occasions of their boss doing exactly this, falsifying records which do not align with the recorded program output. (They frequently go through the logs as part of the process to record the data. They had noticed that the boss was able to complete the task much quicker with many fewer attempts and was looking to see if they (V) were doing something wrong, when they discovered the conflicting reports.) V is concerned about retaliation and has heard the old anecdote of HR protects the interests of the company and not the employee. V's boss is also very well liked and well respected by the higherups. V wants to do the right thing, but fears that even if the issue is resolved they will always have a target on their back. Due to the nature of the test, it would be apparent - even if anonymously submitted that it was V who reported it. The program that these values are used for is not life threatening and would not cause harm to anyone involved.

EDIT: To clarify, V's boss recorded a value that was within the acceptable range that was never presented by the program and has no logical way of abstracting it (i.e. rounding)

What is the best way to report this kind of finding? What are the likely impacts to the career/employmeent of V in this case?

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    "this process can be very tedious and sometimes require several program re-runs to get acceptable values" so the boss hasn't rerun to get acceptable values? It sounds as though this program is inherently ill-functioning, and if it's really so life and death to report bad data, then it would be V's responsibility to report it. If there's retaliation, then it was never going to be a job that V wanted for very long anyway. May 18, 2021 at 19:08
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    What is "your friend"'s goal here? To have the program improved, to have the process improved, to have their boss reprimanded or fired, or something else? May 18, 2021 at 19:21
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    I'm intrigued as to what "re-run" entails exactly, because the way it reads to me is that they're just retrying until they can cherry-pick the result they want. That would make the data inaccurate (it could be true but certainly not precise) by design and easily construed as false anyways. Hopefully it's only a case of details left out of the question, but speaking of ethical dilemma I feel it's useful to point out just in case. May 19, 2021 at 13:08
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    As an aside, manually recording the output of a program feels like something that should be easy to automate. May 19, 2021 at 14:18
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    What the heck are you doing that you can get different values? Some kind of modeling based on sample values? I'm very concerned that you are asked to do it several times in order to get the needed results, which are probably needed for regulatory purposes. All of this seems shady.
    – Issel
    May 20, 2021 at 11:37

7 Answers 7

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Sometimes, life is complicated. Sometimes two rules conflict - the one that says you're not allowed to make up reasonable data but must rerun the tedious process, and the one that says the company won't get paid (or will get fined, or something) if the data isn't submitted on time. Bosses are sometimes in a position to make decisions like this when the people who report to them are not. In those companies, the regular people will be told that under no circumstances can they make up data and they will be fired if they do, but the truth may be that the boss is allowed to authorize making up data and will not be fired.

Alternatively, the boss is a lazy cheat who thinks the rules are only for the entry level people.

These two circumstances are hard to tell apart. But your friend probably doesn't have to. In both cases going to the boss and saying "it looks like you made up data back on the 19th of last month" will get you exactly nowhere. Either it's fine, or it's not fine but the cheating lazy boss is going to say it's fine.

If this was a matter of life and death, (like Walkerton, where people routinely made up the "results" of water contamination measurements that had not even been taken, and 6 people died and many more were sick) I would tell your friend to find a new job then whistle blow. You say it's not. Well then, some workplaces are contradictory and confusing. Sometimes bosses are allowed to do things regular folk are not. Sometimes they aren't allowed to but they do anyway and no-one will thank you for reporting it. For now I would suggest to your friend that keeping a record of the evidence (with dates and times) is appropriate. Maybe this happens once a month, maybe once every few years. Maybe it's clearly fraudulent; maybe it's a reasonable approximation to what really happened, done in the name of expediency. Maybe after a few months your friend will know more clearly what to do about it.

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    TL;DR make sure it can't be attributed to you and then mind your business
    – mxyzplk
    May 18, 2021 at 20:53
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    One addendum, don't lie if asked about it directly from someone higher up than the boss, but don't volunteer the info either.
    – Jon P
    May 19, 2021 at 7:20
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    That's the point of keeping a record. You have like a word document and you put notes and screenshots in it. Call it something neutral like discrepancies, not "data faking". If you can tell who did it, keep that in there too. But super neutral like you're just investigating why sometimes things don't match up. The record is mostly for deciding if you want to escalate, not proving malfeasance if you do escalate. But a screenshot is obviously more compelling than a paper note with some numbers copied onto it and the originals are no longer online. May 19, 2021 at 13:47
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    @CCTO They frequently go through the logs as part of the process to record the data. They had noticed that the boss was able to complete the task much quicker with many fewer attempts and was looking to see if they (V) was doing something wrong, when they discovered the conflicting reports. May 19, 2021 at 15:58
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    To the first point, as an attorney I have training, experience, responsibilities, and (significantly) a license that my paralegals don't. I do things all the time that my paralegals are not allowed to do. Sometimes if I have to do things that they normally handle I can take shortcuts that they are forbidden from taking. Its not clear if this situation is analogous or not. There's no way to know that without a lot information, but situations where supervisors can legitimately take shortcuts that the rank and file cannot are common. May 19, 2021 at 16:50
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What is the best way to report this kind of finding? What are the likely impacts to the career/employmeent of V in this case?

I think your friend needs to re-think their approach to this case. Reporting this kind of finding would be the last step that they would take. If V is really concerned about these findings then V should speak to the person who ran those tests and reported the findings (i.e. their boss).

Rather than accuse the boss of falsifying data, they can let the boss know that the data does not match with the results of the test and ask them to explain why the data is different. Maybe when the boss ran those tests and reported the data it was acceptable to do some sort of rounding of the numbers. Maybe there are external factors that were taken into consideration and required the test results to be adjusted. The simplest way to get some insight is to ask the source.

Obviously, V should not be implying or accusing the boss of falsifying anything without evidence. Extreme care should be taken in how they ask about the discrepancy. V can say something like:

Hey boss, I noticed that the results of tests X and Y don't match with the reported data. Is there some other data that was factored in to achieve these results? In my tests the numbers usually match, so I am wondering if there is any data that maybe I am not taking into consideration. I would like to better understand the process so that I can report the most accurate numbers. Thanks.

The boss' response will give a better indication of whether or not falsification was occurring and what the next steps would be.

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    Always assume ignorance or stupidity over malice. And by stating it so that you're assuming its your own stupidity or ignorance being put in question, you avoid putting the other person in a defensive position. May 19, 2021 at 13:29
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    I don't necessarily disagree with your answer but if you follow this advice and then anonymously report the problem later, you are surely going to end up on a short list of suspected reporters...
    – JeffC
    May 20, 2021 at 4:01
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Each level of authority and responsibility have its own horizon view of things and level of responsibility.

IMHO, it is not your friend`s business to analyze and address behavior of his boss

His job is to do the job - sorry or redundant wording

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    +1 Your job is not your bosses job and the rules that apply to you do not necessarily apply to your boss. Just because you don't have the authority to make a judgment call on data doesn't mean your boss isn't authorized to do it
    – Kevin
    May 19, 2021 at 16:15
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The best way to report the problem is not to report the specific problem but the general underlying problem with the system that allows specific problems to happen and not get detected. This also helps reduce and prevent the likelihood of retaliation since the manager is not being called out on their actions.

Quality Assurance (QA)

This is where quality assurance comes in. If there is a system that is producing data that can be wrong whether it is because of accident, maliciousness, laziness, or any mired of reasons, then said system needs to have some kind of QA being done on it that can detect problems.

For this friend I am assuming there is no QA system in place taking samples, reviewing the data, or having people unknowingly redo data and comparing it to see if it matches. The best solution would be to think of how to implement a QA system that works and get it documented and propose it to the manager or whomever is responsible for the system. Do no cite or reference any specific incident, only mention the possible ways things can go wrong.

Odds are the manager or leader will reject the idea saying that it is too expensive or they do not have the time or resources to implement it. In the event that happens keep records of the documentation and idea and then whenever the next incident that comes to light where someone is getting disciplined or the company being sued, bring it up again. If the company turns down adding QA again, then you have your answer: They do not care, at which point your friend should no longer care what your manager does with the data, only that they themselves are doing everything correctly.

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  • It's an excellent idea for V to propose a "second set of eyes" process, and while V is still kind of new may be a good time to float it, blue-sky like. As Anketam says, if the company doesn't see the need, then V should feel free to make sure their own work is spotless and not to worry if the company seems to tolerate discrepancies in others', if this isn't a life-safety situation.
    – CCTO
    May 19, 2021 at 15:25
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Based on your description of the job I don't see any ethical dilemma. V should run the tests and report the result. It's not V's job or responsibility to check other peoples results. The best and safest thing to do is to just ignore it, and stop looking for other employees errors.

If V should run the same tests and get different results V should just report their result the same way they always do.

I know it's hard to only do your own job, and normally I think it's a good thing to take responsibility and investigate issues. But this investigation was problematic. It seems that instead of investigating possible errors that V might have made himself the investigation was about another employee. And that's not ok if you're not a boss or get a specific task to do that investigation. Nothing good can come from it.

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Mind your own business and do what your job is to do. Don't bother what others do or don't unless it directly affects your job. Definitely, there will be consequences and your friend's work-life will be affected for sure moving forward if he/she choose to report the boss.

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As most/all other answers have said: mind your own business and do as you're told. This is obviously assuming that there is no actual damage (i.e., this is not in a medical company where the faked test results would lead to wrong dosages for important medications, and such). Not only is it possible that the boss knows more than you know; it could also be that he has direct communication with whoever requires the data to be correct, and has cleared this up directly with them. I.e., maybe it is a matter of people getting a stubborn process to work, fully aware of the side effects and real-world consequences. If this is a process internal to your company, he might just know from year-long experience that even though these values are wrong, everything will still be fine.

This happens plenty often in business. As long as no laws are broken, or humans or otherwise are in danger, there is no reason to have a moral dilemma. If the worst thing that can happen is a civil lawsuit because your company is the contractor, and the customer was not in the boat regarding the falsified data, then so be it. As long as you are in the clear - you did not do it, and there is nothing leading to falsified proof against you - it should not really concern you.

Now, if it was not your boss that did it, the situation would be different; if it were a completely different team, I would definitely suggest for you to inform your boss. If it was a senior team member of yours (but not your boss), then that would probably be the most difficult decision for you - "ratting" on people on your same level can backfire the most...

One thing your friend can do is to simply talk with his boss about the situation. I.e., chat with him about how long it takes himself, and that he noticed that the boss was much faster - maybe the boss has tips for him on how to get the results quicker; more like asking for coaching than anything else. And I mean this as a real chat/talk - not an indirect accusation, but actually to find out what the objective reason is. Obviously this runs a certain risk based on the character of the boss, and what actually is going on. If the boss is not necessarily the type who is easily accessible, then just forget about it.

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