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Where is the limit of your ethics? Where would you draw the line?

I'm guessing that many of you have strong ethics right? I know I have them, and for me it's always hard to know when to draw the line when a client requests certain things.

What about you?

  • 1. Where would/do YOU draw the line?
  • 2. Is there anything that would make, or has made, YOU say "NO, I won't do that"?

I'm really curious to know, please feel free to discuss it in the comments!

Top comments (7)

sargalias profile image
Spyros Argalias

Interesting question. For me, personally, it's the legal limit.

Disclaimer: This is not legal advice. I'm not a lawyer. I could be wrong about everything I'm writing here.

Where I live, I'm not obligated to do what my employer asks me to do if it's illegal.

Further, if a programmer does something illegal, they can be personally prosecuted. Remember the case with Volkswagen and their engineers? 3 years in prison and a 200k fine.

From that article "Software engineers across the country will have to reflect on the fact that they may be held personally responsible for creating something that knowingly breaks the law".

Things that are probably illegal at the moment are:

  • not making accessible software (complying with the WCAG 2.0 guidelines in the UK)
  • GDPR (proper consent on forms and usage customer data)

Other things that I'm certain someone could be sued for are things like:

  • making insecure software
  • making buggy software

If I was self-employed and someone hired me to make software and I made them something buggy, I could potentially be sued.

I'm not a lawyer, but why wouldn't it be the same under full-time employment? I don't want to take the chance.

So, if my employer asks me to do something immoral, or potentially illegal, I would only proceed if I've got a paper trail of communication where I've clearly outlined my concerns, and my employer still told me to go ahead and do it.

For example, they might say that they don't want me to write tests because they want the feature out faster. I would clearly have it in writing that "If we don't write tests there is the risks of X types of bugs later down the line. Are you still happy for me to proceed?". If I get a written reply that they're happy, then I'll proceed. At that point, it's not my legal problem from what I understand.

Same thing with legal things, to an extent. Employer might say "make this form, but make the checkbox pre-ticked". I would reply "from what I understand, it's illegal to have this checkbox pre-ticked, but I'm not a lawyer so I could be wrong. Can we please confirm with the legal team before I proceed?"

If something is blatantly illegal, or absolutely immoral, then I wouldn't do it. I would either quit or tell them I'm not doing it and let them fire me.

However, I can't think of many work scenarios where something immoral is legal.

nombrekeff profile image

Interesting answer too.

Yeah, I agree, though sometimes the line between legal and illegal is quite blurry.

I was not aware you could get sued for making buggy code, or for not making accessible software, but it kinda makes sense in some way. Though it could be debatable if the devs should be responsible or the company.

Luckily I have not been requested to do anything illegal yet, but I have been requested to do some immoral/unethical things, which I've discussed with the pertinent people. If I can't convince them I will do it, but at least I have a confirmation and a written record as you pointed out. Which makes me sleep a lot better at night.

"make this form, but make the checkbox pre-ticked"

Funny enough I had to do this a while back, and I had to make sure it was legal and confirm that I should do it. I still don't think that was legal, but they supposedly asked the layers and it was OK. Who knows... I might get sued at some point for that lol

Thanks for the answer, It's really interesting.

sargalias profile image
Spyros Argalias

Lol, yeah same I had the same issue with checkbox and they asked the lawyers too apparently.

Just to be clear, I'm not claiming you could be sued for making buggy code. As I said I'm not a lawyer and I'm not sure how far it would have to go for programmers to be personally sued for something.

I was referring to if you had your own software development company (or were self-employed), and another company has commissioned you for something, that's business to business. If you didn't deliver what was in the contract (like the software was buggy in this case) you'd be required to fix it or they could probably sue. Not sure if it relates at all to employer-employee relationship. But as I said, I don't want to take the chances.

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nombrekeff profile image

Ohh I see, yeah that makes more sense. In our case we offer fixes and maintainment as part of the contract. So we are obligated to fix any bugs or issues that might arise after the development has ended and the application has been shipped. I don't know if we could get sued here in Spain for that, but probably yes, as not doing so would break the contract.

I also wouldn't take any chances, better to be covered just in case!

theothertimduncan profile image

As an American, I found Spyros's comment regarding possibly being sued as an interesting issue. I don't see that as a concern in the US but appreciate the reminder that different countries have different rules or practices.

But I also found even more interesting the point about making sure you have a documented paper trail for something you might disagree with. I feel that gets too close to the "just following orders" excuse (deliberate Nazi reference). In regards to the checkbox that was mentioned, if this was in reference to a dark UI pattern like a checkbox for "yes, please spam my email account with lots of crap" that defaults to checked, I personally would refuse regardless of what paper trail may exist and regardless of whether that means I lose my job. I will admit as an older male I probably feel more secure about being able to find another job or even survive financially for a bit without a job.

That's my primary answer to Keff's question. Refusing to do something illegal is mostly easy enough to identify and refuse to do. Doing something harmful is where I draw the line.

nombrekeff profile image

Nice to see another point of view on the matter.

I find the "being an older male" point really interesting. I guess drawing the line or saying no is also affected by many other factors, like demographics, having other job options, financial freedom, etc... not only one's ethics. It might be easy to identify something as illegal or against your ethics, but not that easy to say no or risk being fired.

In my case, I also draw the line at something being harmful, but also if it's against my personal ethics. If it's illegal and I'm aware I would say no instantly. If I'm not sure I will research it, and then say yes or no, luckily I haven't had such experiences yet.

figspville profile image
Salli Figler

I have a few situations in my career when I was asked to either do or go along with something that felt was unethical.

One was having a boss who was getting "gifts" or such from a vendor which in turn kept them our vendor - even though we all knew there were better vendors out there. This made me look for a new job and when I found once, I quit the job. The boss didn't seem to care - I guess he knew I wasn't going to play along.
A more recent situation made me extremely uncomfortable. I was told something in confidence by an employee and a high level executive asked me who the employee was. When I told him I would not reveal the name, another executive told me to tell him. I felt I had no choice but to tell the name. I immediately went to the employee and told them I had given their name. They were understanding but I am still disheartened to think that certain Executives feel they can break confidentiality rules. I no longer work there either but I did not leave because of this incident.