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Michael Pritchard Professor; Co-Director of The Ethics Center Western Michigan University More Posts
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Company Interests and Employee Involvement in Community
Company Interests and Employee Involvement in Community



Author(s) Michael Pritchard
Authoring Institution Center for the Study of Ethics in Society at Western Michigan University
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Contributor(s) Michael Pritchard
Year 1992
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Notes Case study originally published in “Teaching Engineering Ethics: A Case Study Approach” by Michael Pritchard. Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, Western Michigan University, 1992.
Publisher National Academy of Engineering, Online Ethics Center
Authoring Institution (obsolete) Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, Western Michigan University
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  • Posted 14 years and 1 month ago

    While reading this case, two questions kept entering my
    mind: "Why are CDC employees acting this way?" and "Where is
    the CDC public relations department?" Contrary to popular
    belief, 'public relations' is not a dirty word. In the
    contemporary view of public relations, it means communicating
    the organization's message to its publics. These publics can be
    outside the organization (in this case, the citizens of
    Parkville and, in some sense, Elizabeth Dorsey) or inside the
    organization (Elizabeth Dorsey and the other employees).
    Because it did not rely on a well-defined public relations
    effort, CDC, Inc. put Elizabeth Dorsey and her co-workers in
    dangerous ethical territory.

    CDC has decided to expand its operations by building a new
    facility. The planning committee has decided that the most
    desirable location would be in Parkville, a small town with
    citizens committed to preserving its recreational and wildlife
    areas. We can hope that the planning committee considered
    citizen opposition to its plan when deciding on this course of
    action and decided that other aspects of this location made the
    construction of the new facility desirable in spite of
    difficulties in obtaining the necessary legal permits.

    Deciding on the site for the new facility was a task
    assigned to the planning committee. Assuming that they did
    their jobs well, CDC truly needs this particular site for its
    new facility. This is a decision that is clearly within the
    function of a planning committee. Nevertheless, once they have
    made this decision and convinced the appropriate organizational
    decision makers of the soundness of their plan, their job is
    done. There is no reason for a member of the committee to
    request that one of CDC's employees ask another employee to
    "soften up" the Parkville City Council members. This request is
    asking an employee to serve as a lobbyist for the organization.
    That function requires specialized skills is not part of the
    standard job of an engineer.

    Asking Elizabeth Dorsey to serve as a lobbyist for CDC
    places her in a precarious ethical position. She is being asked
    to serve as an advocate for an organizational decision. This
    role is clearly beyond her job function. In addition, she is
    being asked to serve as a mediator between her employer and her
    community. She is being asked to perform a task that should be
    performed by employees in the public relations department.
    These individuals are trained to present the organization's
    position to the public and have agreed to do this task. In
    addition, public relations practitioners follow a code of
    ethics for their profession and can seek guidance from their
    professional association (the Public Relations Society of
    America) if they feel they have a potential conflict of

    Clearly Elizabeth Dorsey feels caught between her desire to
    serve the environmental needs of her community and the desire
    of her employer for a new facility. CDC has placed her in an
    untenable position. If she reveals her environmental activism
    to the chief engineer of her unit she can be accused of not
    supporting her organization. If she does not reveal her
    previous activity in Parkville she can be accused of lying to
    her supervisor. By asking her to perform an inappropriate task,
    CDC has forced her to choose between her previous environmental
    activities and her employer. No matter which option she
    chooses, in some way she is harmed.

    This case is particularly distressing because there is no
    reason for Elizabeth Dorsey to be placed in this situation. If
    CDC, Inc. wants to site a new facility in a town, they should
    ask the appropriate organizational employees to lobby for this
    effort. If the corporate public relations department is not
    capable of this task, an outside firm can be hired. These
    employees will follow their profession's ethical guidelines,
    and CDC engineers will not be asked to perform tasks that are
    not part of their organizational responsibilities.

  • Posted 14 years and 1 month ago

    This case could easily form the plot for a three-day
    television miniseries. All the ingredients are here:
    environmentalists versus a large corporation, large
    metropolitan interests versus small town values, potentially
    thousands of people affected by the actions, and in the center
    of it all Elizabeth Dorsey, engineer, who might become a
    heroine, a goat, or even a sacrificial lamb. The possibilities
    of dramatic scenes of showdowns in corporate board rooms or
    City Council chambers boggle the imagination. In the
    miniseries, no doubt, the Committee for Environmental Quality,
    supported by mass rallies and marches by the citizens of
    Parkville, will eventually win over the City Council and send
    the political types from CDC packing back to the metropolitan
    area. Elizabeth Dorsey, fired from her job with CDC, will be
    almost immediately hired by a new environmentally conscious
    firm relocating in Parkville but without using a single square
    foot of the recreational and wildlife area. Parkville lives
    happily ever after, all because Elizabeth Dorsey was true to
    her principles. So much for drama.

    The case before us, however, often has analogues in more
    mundane situations in the real world. The conflict between
    business interests, on the one hand, and personal or
    professional values, on the other, lies behind many of the most
    difficult and troubling cases in engineering ethics. As many
    writers have pointed out, the codes of ethics of the
    engineering societies often place dual and conflicting
    responsibilities on engineers: a responsibility to hold the
    public welfare paramount yet at the same time a responsibility
    to do one's best for one's client or employer. In our case, not
    only Elizabeth Dorsey but several other persons in CDC seem to
    judge these two obligations to be in direct conflict.

    But must the obligations be in conflict in this case? First,
    as described in our story, CDC, Inc., seems to be an
    environmentally responsible corporation. Not only does it make
    a generous offer to the City Council concerning care of the
    wildlife and recreation area, but it is unlikely that Elizabeth
    Dorsey herself, given her environmental concerns, would work
    for CDC and feel any loyalty to it if the company was not
    environmentally responsible. Certainly, Parkville could have
    been targeted as a site for corporate building that would be
    far less hospitable to the environment than CDC's plan, so
    Elizabeth Dorsey's concerns with the environment seem not to,
    on the surface of it, be necessarily hostile to the CDC
    approach. Second, we might ask, what is in the public welfare?
    The Committee for Environmental Quality is admittedly a small
    but active citizen group, and at least some maintenance of
    recreational and wildlife area seems to be important to the
    citizens. On the other hand, there are doubtless other
    interests in the town: employment interests, the possibility of
    greater local taxes for public improvements, and other economic
    benefits that go along with the location of a new firm in town.
    So it may be an open question whether the entire recreational
    and wildlife area that the Committee for Environmental Quality
    wants to preserve should justifiably be preserved. Committee
    members may own parts of the town, but they do not own it
    completely. Indeed, the corporation may have an interest in
    relocating out of the crowded metropolitan area into an area
    that would be pleasant for its workers. The corporate officers
    should realize that it has nothing to gain by spoiling its own
    new nest or by pursuing tactics that alienate a major portion
    of the community. Ideally, something like the following might
    happen: CDC makes its interests known to the Parkville City
    Council; the Parkville councilors then set up a number of
    public hearings and discussions so that various local groups
    can express their concerns and have their questions
    straightforwardly answered. Both city officers and CDC
    officials make an effort to be open and public in their
    dealings so that Parkville residents will not have the idea
    that some political shell game is going on behind closed doors.
    In the end, some mutual accommodation may be worked out. The
    Committee for Environmental Quality may come to see that
    preserving 75 percent of the recreational and wildlife area
    joined with a firm commitment from the City Council to maintain
    its noncommercial zoning, and with additional funds to help
    support the environmental development of the area, is a better
    alternative than several other imaginable ones. On the other
    hand, if the community is truly hostile toward CDC and has no
    interest in expanding its economic base at the expense of its
    small-town lifestyle, CDC might drop its plans.

    Now let us turn to Elizabeth Dorsey. What moral
    considerations are appropriate to her decisions in this case?
    First, she should be honest with the people in her corporation
    as well as with the people in her community. Her interest in
    the environment is not in and of itself disloyalty to CDC.
    Furthermore, as a resident of Parkville, she is in a position
    to bring home to any official in CDC who asks her the concern
    of the community for a certain way of life. In fact, a CDC
    official might even be astute enough to ask her opinion about
    what should be done. Second, Elizabeth also has an obligation
    to maintain any confidential information that is the property
    of the company. It is difficult to believe that any information
    in a detailed proposal to a city council would remain
    confidential for long, however. Since Elizabeth has worked
    within the corporation, she might have a better perspective on
    the types of plans that CDC has and be in a position to put to
    rest any false rumors that members of the Committee on
    Environmental Quality might hear or circulate. The really
    difficult situation for Elizabeth occurs when three persons in
    the corporation, including her immediate superior, decide that
    she should be asked to soften up some of the City Council
    members. It is unfortunate that a committee member thought that
    such a softening-up routine would be a good tactic. It is also
    unfortunate the committee chair went along with the idea. When
    planning committee chair Jim Bartlett approached Elizabeth's
    boss, David Jensen, David should have expressed some qualms
    about asking Elizabeth to undertake a lobbying effort on behalf
    of the corporation, but he could have said to Jim that he would
    talk to Elizabeth about the corporation's plans in order to see
    whether she has any ideas or suggestions. David could say this
    whether or not he knew of Elizabeth's environmental concerns.
    It would not be fair for David to respond to Jim's request by
    saying, "Oh, Elizabeth's going to fight you every step of the
    way because she's a very active member of the Parkville
    Environmental Quality Committee." At that point Elizabeth would
    have been labeled the enemy in Jim's eyes without Elizabeth's
    having said a word.

    Let us suppose that David Jensen does communicate Jim
    Bartlett's message to Elizabeth. Before committing herself to
    any course of action, Elizabeth ought to find out as much as
    she can about the plans. Perhaps she could ask to talk to Jim
    Bartlett himself or some of the members of the committee. She
    should also be up front with David Jensen, Jim Bartlett, or
    anyone else at the corporation concerning her interest in the
    environment and her work with the Committee on Environmental
    Quality. She should make it clear in the process that she is
    not in any manner opposed to the CDC corporation or with a
    possible CDC plant location in Parkville. Her only qualms have
    to do with the specific site and the possibility of resulting
    environmental damage. She should also inform the persons that
    the City Council has gone on record as opposing economic
    development of the area when it came at the expense of the
    environment. Finally, Elizabeth should, insofar as she can,
    push for a public and open discussion of CDC's proposal.

    If, after learning all the facts, Elizabeth Dorsey is still
    firmly in opposition to the CDC move, then she has some hard
    decisions to make. At one extreme, she might choose to remain
    completely neutral in the matter, refusing to take any role
    that is favorable either to the committee or to CDC. At the
    other extreme, she might decide she could no longer work for
    CDC, resign her position, and devote herself full time to
    fighting their proposal for Parkville. On the other hand, if
    she sees merit in the proposal, she is confronted by a
    different set of choices. In either case, her challenge is to
    balance her public commitments with her professional
    commitments while at the same time maintaining her personal

    How would Elizabeth's situation be viewed by other persons
    concerned with the case? A citizen of Parkville would, I think,
    expect a number of things from Elizabeth. There is the
    expectation that she would not do in her fellow citizens simply
    in order to continue to receive a paycheck from the
    corporation. At the same time, the citizens would not want her
    to be unsympathetic to other concerns in the community besides
    environmental concerns, since if Elizabeth led the fight and
    was an employee of CDC corporation it is clear that she could
    garner considerable publicity for herself and her cause,
    publicity which would look so damaging that CDC might scrap the
    plans completely. In short, a fellow citizen of Parkville might
    be concerned that Elizabeth not misuse her special position.
    Although some members of the Committee for Environmental
    Quality might want Elizabeth to be their reformer "inside the
    tent," they ought to be more sensitive to her special position,
    a position in which no matter what she says she might be
    misunderstood. The committee members should expect Elizabeth to
    be straightforward with them and honest in her evaluation of
    the merits of CDC's plans. The company and its officials should
    not attempt to dictate Elizabeth's ideals or force her to
    compromise them. On the other hand, they may also rightfully
    expect that Elizabeth would not act in such a way as to
    embarrass the company or unjustifiably to impugn its good

  • Posted 14 years and 1 month ago


    This case involves questions of employee freedom, loyalty,
    conflict of interest, and conflict between conscience and
    interest. In general, what you do on your own time is your own
    business. Employees ought to have the freedom off the job to
    participate in community affairs according to their own lights.
    The employer should not try to dictate or influence what form
    that participation takes. However it could be said that
    employees owe off-the-job loyalty to the their employer, at
    least to the extent of not opposing the company's interests.
    Employee off-the-job freedom extends first and foremost to
    questions not directly related to the company's business
    concerns, such as supporting political candidates or taking
    positions on issues such as abortion. When the company has a
    direct stake in some matter, however, the situation changes and
    the employee might well have an obligation to support the
    company or at least not to oppose it. This is especially true
    when the company has a lot at stake, such as whether it can
    expand or replace its physical plant. What you do on your own
    time doesn't affect your job performance, but if it hinders
    your company's operations, it might affect whether the company
    has a job for you to perform.

    On the other hand, suppose your company is about to do
    something you disapprove of, because you think it is against
    the public good. Imagine further that the project does not any
    way relate to your normal job responsibilities. Are you obliged
    to go along out of loyalty? Are you obliged to help the company
    accomplish its unworthy goal, if you should be asked to do

    Elizabeth Dorsey's employer, CDC Inc, plans to build a
    facility on environmentally sensitive land in the small
    community in which she lives. It is evidently important for CDC
    that the facility be built on this location. As luck would have
    it, Elizabeth not only values the quality of life in Parkville,
    she is a member of a citizen's environmental group, which has
    already successfully opposed rezoning of recreational land.
    Elizabeth, we may assume, does not like CDC's plans, and she is
    inclined to oppose them. However the case does not state what
    her reasons are for hesitating. Perhaps she is concerned only
    with her self-interest as an employee who is not expected to
    oppose the company, at least not in public. However she may
    wonder whether she is within her rights to assume that she's
    free to do what she wants, even on her own time. She may think
    that it's disloyal for an employee to cause problems for the
    company; or she may recognize how important this project is for
    CDC and not want to cause CDC harm. Also, she may feel a
    conflict of interest, since as a Parkville resident who enjoys
    small-town life, it would be better for her if CDC built
    somewhere else.


    CDC official Jim Bartlett learns that Elizabeth lives in
    Parkville and tells her boss, David, to ask her to lobby for
    the CDC proposal with the Parkville City Council. Should David
    comply? No reason is given why David should not agree to the
    request to try and enlist Elizabeth on the side of CDC. Absent
    special circumstances, it doesn't seem unethical for a company
    to ask its employees to help it in the political process. For
    all CDC knows (circumstance #1), Elizabeth would favor the
    project and be happy to help by exercising her right to lobby
    her elected representatives. The ethical problem would be if
    Elizabeth were subject to undue pressure, but to this point
    such pressure is at most hypothetical and implicit, and
    Elizabeth is free to resist it. Even if David knew of E's
    environmental concerns, (circumstance #2), this should not
    prevent him from talking to her; to assume that she's
    necessarily opposed to the CDC proposal would be presumptuous.
    To this point, he hasn't been asked and doesn't intend to exert
    any pressure on her, merely to ask her assistance.

    What David should say is basically what Jim Bartlett asks
    him to say, assuming Jim hasn't asked anything outrageous: the
    CDC needs this facility and since Elizabeth lives in Parkville,
    maybe she'll support it. If he's aware of Elizabeth's
    environmental concerns, presumably he'd want to make the
    environmental pitch to her, as CDC has made it to the City
    Council. If CDC's environmental pitch is sincere, David thinks
    he's got a good case and a reasonable environmentalist ought
    not oppose the project. But even if CDC's environmental
    approach is window dressing, there's no good reason why David
    can't try it out on Elizabeth. She can always shoot it down if
    she sees it that way.


    David's request puts Elizabeth on the spot and she had
    better be up front from the first. Although she's an
    environmentalist, to this point she hasn't made up her mind
    about CDC's request, though, she's inherently suspicious of it.
    She shouldn't conceal the fact that she's an environmentalist
    and that David or Jim will have to sell her on the
    environmental points, though there might not be much point in
    going into the gory details of past battles. CDC wants her
    help, and she owes it to David to give him the chance to
    convince her of the merits of CDC's plan. If she's not
    convinced, she should be able to explain why. She might, for
    example, point out that she has a conflict of interest because
    development would alter the life style in her quiet town.

    One might even note that talking to Elizabeth is actually a
    good opportunity for CDC officials. If they can persuade
    Elizabeth, they should be able to persuade the City Council. If
    they can't persuade Elizabeth, they should at least have a
    better idea of the weakness in their plan and the kind of
    opposition they're about to run into.

    Of course David and Jim may not appreciate this new turn,
    and may expect unquestioned obedience ('loyalty') from
    employees such as Elizabeth. If she suspects this, she may be
    tempted to conceal her involvement with the Council as a way of
    trying to get off the spot (option 1); but she should realize
    that pretending to be uninvolved is foolish as well as
    dishonest. She might foresee that David would press her further
    (as he does in IV). And her denial that she knows anyone on the
    City Council is a bit implausible. In a town of 5,000, there's
    probably a member of the Council living next door. Further, by
    denying involvement at this point, she's making it more
    difficult for herself to become involved later: if she ever
    does decide to act against CDC, her past activities will
    obviously come to their attention, which would be embarrassing
    to say the least.


    Elizabeth foolishly tries to pretend she's not in a position
    to help, and David foreseeably presses her to contact a member
    of the Council. Predictably, her feeble dodge hasn't succeeded
    in averting the issue. Elizabeth has to realize that sooner or
    later she's going to have to face the question of whether she
    wants to fight the CDC project, or not. Why doesn't she give
    David and Jim the chance to make the environmental pitch to
    her? If she's not convinced, she can make her rebuttal points
    and explain that therefore she can't help them. If she is
    convinced, then she has no excuse for not helping.

    Elizabeth's action seems to be motivated by a fear that CDC
    will hold it against her if she doesn't co-operate. It may be
    this fear that leads her to try to dodge the issue by
    prevaricating. She may have some reason for this fear, based on
    what she may know about CDC, but to this point there's been no
    indication that the fear is warranted. But even if it is, it
    doesn't follow that deception is her best means to avoid the


    Now Elizabeth's ill-advised attempt at deception backfires.
    You can never escape the Mafia. Everyone knows everything in a
    small town and someone rats on Elizabeth to Jim: her dirty
    secret is out, she's an environmentalist! Now she's about to be
    given a direct order to cool it. The order itself may be
    illegitimate, but Jim is understandably angry with Elizabeth.
    David's been told to transmit this order, and perhaps he
    doesn't like this task. He may think Elizabeth has a right to
    do what she likes, and perhaps he might try to persuade Jim to
    let her alone. He might point out that there's no gain in
    antagonizing a valuable employee, and after all Elizabeth does
    live there. So she has a right to defend her town's way of
    life. On the other hand, Jim's reaction seems to suggest that
    Jim is worried that Elizabeth's opposition could influence the
    outcome, and the project is presumably quite important to CDC.
    David is not being asked to advice Jim, but to talk to
    Elizabeth, and all things considered perhaps he'd better do so.
    We don't know that David personally doesn't support the CDC
    project. So it's not that he feels Elizabeth is in the right.
    Even if he's sympathetic to her position, he's wearing his
    company hat at the moment; all he's being told to do is to
    relay Jim's message not to get involved.

    What David should do after relaying Jim's message is another
    question, and that depends on how Elizabeth responds. David
    hasn't been told not to give advice and counsel to Elizabeth
    according to his best lights. So if she asks him what he thinks
    she should do, he is free to tell her.


    Under this hypothesis, (following III 2), Elizabeth very
    wisely comes clean with David from the beginning. But
    inconsistently with her own honesty, she asks David to
    prevaricate for her in order to cover her refusal to cooperate.
    She now has a reason, however, supplied by David: "Jim won't
    like it" (that she won't co-operate). Fear of Jim is her reason
    for concealing her opposition. But why should she be afraid of
    Jim before she's even heard CDC's case? David ought to ask
    Elizabeth for a chance to make the pitch. Time enough then to
    worry about what Jim will do; perhaps CDC's environmental case
    is so poor, Jim won't have the heart to retaliate. As for
    lying, David shouldn't do it. He knows that if she had told him
    that she didn't know anyone on the City Council, he was
    prepared to ask her to make such a contact. So he can now tell
    her that Jim will probably ask the same. Deception is still
    deception, and nothing's gained by passing it up the ladder
    from David to Jim.

    David can tell Elizabeth that he understands that she can't
    cooperate with CDC, but he doubts that she can avoid the
    problem so easily. Even if Jim accepts her truthful but not
    quite honest response that she "can't help," she will still
    have to face the question of whether she will oppose the CDC
    request. Isn't it better to pass on to Jim that she doesn't
    approve the CDC proposal and so can't co-operate? She doesn't
    want the swamp paved over and a big facility built in her
    little town: Jim should be able to understand that. If she's
    fearful of saying that little, then she may really have a
    problem at CDC, which is very likely going to recur sooner or
    later; but at least she won't have the added problem of having
    tried to deceive her boss.


    As in V, Jim finds out through someone else what the true
    state of the question is: despite her attempt to conceal it,
    Elizabeth is an environmentalist. Again, David is told to relay
    the 'cool it' message, which he should do, as there are no
    grounds for his refusing to tell her what Jim has commanded.
    Whether David adds that he agrees with Jim depends on whether
    he does agree. If he does he can say so. If he does not,
    perhaps he shouldn't say that unless Elizabeth asks him for
    advice or help. He is certainly not under any obligation to
    Elizabeth to volunteer his own opinion, but he has no reason to
    conceal it if she asks. If David basically agrees with Jim, he
    might feel that he ought to make an attempt to get Elizabeth to
    see the light. Jim will expect this. It's the right thing (he
    thinks), and it's better for her. After all, Elizabeth could be
    in the wrong and tilting at windmills: maybe the CDC plan
    really won't hurt the environment, and no doubt Parkville,
    which is near a big city, can't remain a small town forever. If
    there's any reason why David shouldn't make these arguments to
    Elizabeth if he feels they're valid, it would be that Elizabeth
    could take the whole thing as threats from her boss. Whether
    this is realistic depends on circumstances not stated in the
    case, but in general, the fact that David is her boss shouldn't
    by itself prevent him from advising her to co-operate with the

    David of course can anticipate that Jim expects him to
    persuade Elizabeth to obey, or at least make an attempt to do
    so (as happens in sec. X below). Given this, he'd better make
    the attempt, certainly if he believes in the CDC project; but
    even if he doesn't, Elizabeth has a right to hear the CDC
    arguments. David is free to point out that CDC won't like
    Elizabeth's opposition, but he should be careful not to appear
    to otherwise threaten her: she can hardly expect that by
    opposing the project, she's going to win any points with CDC
    officials! Disapproving what she does and using coercion
    against her aren't the same. The difficult question at this
    point for David is if he anticipates that Jim is apt to take an
    unfair tack and try to force Elizabeth to do something she
    doesn't feel she can do. If David tells Elizabeth he
    anticipates this, he might expect problems from Jim later.
    Since Jim has put David on the spot, he'd better think out
    carefully what view he takes of the situation. There's no point
    risking his own neck if he basically thinks Elizabeth is a
    disloyal employee who's digging her own grave. David might
    agree that Elizabeth has a right to her freedom of action, but
    that she's overstepped the lines. Maybe he thinks that the
    environmentalist concerns are wrong and that Elizabeth should
    show loyalty and help the company, and he should be free to try
    telling her this and see what she says. But if he thinks she's
    got a right to act independently and Jim is unfairly running
    over her, then he may feel he's got an obligation, based on
    friendship or his own loyalty to a subordinate, to help her;
    and if he thinks he can advise her or in some way run
    interference for her and protect her from Jim, he should offer
    to try.

    David has to make a complicated assessment which we can't
    make for him because the case doesn't give enough information.
    For all we know, Elizabeth is a crank or an environmental
    extremist. She might be a romantic who thinks small towns are
    forever and who simply can't face inevitable change and
    development. Or she might be making a false choice of values,
    preferring another swamp for the pleasure of the wealthy
    Parkville suburbanites when real people lack jobs. David seems
    to be caught in the middle of the Elizabeth situation and has
    to take into account the realities as well as abstract
    questions of Elizabeth's rights.


    In section II it is stated that CDC has made a presentation
    to the City Council. So it is not clear why it is said now that
    the Parkville environmental group is unaware of CDC's
    intentions. In any case, having made a presentation to a public
    body, CDC can hardly claim that its intentions are
    confidential. Elizabeth is perfectly within her rights to
    discuss the CDC proposal to the City Council with the other
    members of her environmental group or anyone else.

    Assume however that CDC's plans, though known to Elizabeth,
    are still in the formative and confidential stage. Elizabeth
    should not rush to the environmental action group (CEQ) with
    what she knows. Confidential plans should be considered
    confidential until they have been explicitly said to be not
    confidential; employees should not draw inferences from what
    has been said to them that plans are no longer confidential.
    CDC's intentions are not public property and there may be good
    business reasons why they do not want their plans revealed
    prematurely. Until CDC makes an official move, it is always
    possible that it will change its plans, or that what it
    presents will be significantly different from what Elizabeth
    has heard about. Further, it is not clear what the
    environmentalists are going to gain by having advance knowledge
    of CDC intentions. Sooner or later CDC will have to come
    public, and then there will be time for study of the CDC plans
    and formulation of a response. (If no such adequate response
    time is given, the CEQ's quarrel will be with the City Council
    for acting in haste, and not with Elizabeth for failing to
    reveal company confidential information). That Elizabeth even
    considers violating company confidentiality in order to give an
    edge to the CEQ indicates that her loyalties are so much with
    her environmental interests that there may be a real question
    whether she can in good conscience continue as a CDC


    The environmental committee learns of CDC's apparently still
    secret plans, and wants to mobilize quickly against them. But
    they have no right to ask Elizabeth what she knows or doesn't
    know. Such a question would be a provocation and could be
    construed as a deliberate attempt to cause problems for
    Elizabeth at CDC. If she answers, they may well press her for
    further inside information; she might be put in the position of
    undercover spy for the CEQ, which would totally undermine her
    position at CDC. She should reluctantly, even indignantly,
    refuse to answer. If the CEQ wants to mobilize, they can do so
    based on whatever they already know: it didn't take much
    knowledge to get the CEQ members up in arms, so why shouldn't
    they assume that the same knowledge is sufficient to mobilize
    everyone else?

    Elizabeth actually has an acute conflict of interest problem
    with regard to CEQ. How can she support them while on the
    payroll at CDC? Can they trust her to do her best and give them
    honest advice? She is compromised as a member of CEQ from the
    beginning. Suppose she honestly comes to the conclusion that
    CDC's proposal is not so bad, can the other members of CEQ
    trust this judgment? May she not feel impelled to attack CDC
    more stridently than necessary just to prove her environmental
    correctness? It is probably best for Elizabeth to offer to quit
    CEQ as soon as this situation develops. No one is

    But suppose this difficulty is resolved because of the trust
    the other people on CEQ have in Elizabeth's environmentalism.
    They may not accept her offer to quit, since they have a strong
    interest in her propaganda value against CDC. (Headline: "CDC
    Engineer Denounces Project"). Should she take an active role in
    opposing CDC? This is really the core problem of this case. It
    is useful to remember that activity can take many forms, not
    all of which require a front-line presence. Perhaps CDC will
    accept her opposition if it isn't also faced with very loud and
    embarrassing public protest by one of its own employees.
    Elizabeth should remember that as a citizen, she's got the
    right to act politically, and that her employer has no right,
    legal or moral, to determine what she does. Yet at the same
    time she might very well want to take into account the claims
    of loyalty to the company which pays her salary. And she also
    needs to remember that her right to political action is one
    that is going to be difficult to enforce and might prove costly
    for her if her action makes the employer sufficiently angry. So
    she has to make a judgment taking all this into account. She
    has to decide how important it is to oppose this project,
    whether there aren't other people who might oppose it as
    effectively as she but at less personal risk (too bad for the
    CEQ if any of its members is indispensable), how angry CDC is
    likely to be at her, etc. Perhaps there are certain things she
    can do, like provide behind the scenes technical advice, which
    won't upset CDC at all; other things-marching, making speeches,
    etc. might prove more embarrassing to her company and costly to


    We now imagine that David has had his little heart-to-heart
    with Elizabeth (as in section VII), but in vain: the next thing
    Jim knows, one of his engineers is all over the newspaper
    speaking against development of the CDC target area. Jim is
    understandably not pleased and asks David what's going on?
    David can reply to Jim that he passed on Jim's message and
    urged Elizabeth to cool it. What else he says depends on what
    he told Elizabeth and how she replied. If he's promised to try
    to protect her, he'll have decided in advance how best to talk
    to Jim about her (as Jim sees it) disloyalty and disobedience.
    It's become pretty clear now that Jim is a person who brooks no
    interference; when he gives orders he expects results. David
    must have known this, and probably has acted to Elizabeth more
    or less as Jim would wish. If he hasn't, he's presumably
    prepared to stand up to Jim and persuade him to go easy on
    Elizabeth. Whether he's got an obligation to do so or not would
    depend on the considerations referred to in section VII.

    Elizabeth has certainly not made life any easier for David
    by getting herself in the newspapers. Perhaps David didn't make
    it clear to her how big a problem Jim could be. Or perhaps she
    wasn't interested in knowing. By putting David in jeopardy,
    Elizabeth puts her own fairness and integrity into question.
    One wants to know whether Elizabeth alerted David about her
    statement to the City Council, and whether his support was
    conditional on her not going public is such a visible way.
    There are limits to how far you can help someone who won't help
    themselves. If Elizabeth is counting on David to get her out of
    trouble with CDC, she may be asking for more than anyone can
    deliver. She is going to have to accept that if you do risky
    things you may suffer the consequences.

    XI & XII

    There cannot be two different 'points of view;' what's
    ethical is ethical. Elizabeth has every right to act
    politically as she sees fit when she's off the job, and the
    company has no right to expect that she will act as its front.
    Nevertheless the company does have some call on her loyalty,
    which means that it's not unreasonable for them to think that
    if she can't support them, at least she ought not to oppose
    them either, or at the very least not to cause them too much
    embarrassment by overt public activity. If Elizabeth has
    decided that CDC's proposal is so destructive that it must be
    stopped at all costs (to it and her), then perhaps she can no
    longer honorably continue to work for them. Can you work for a
    company that is as bad as all that?

    Much depends on the merits of the case: if the CDC proposal
    really is as good as CDC says it is, or at least arguably so,
    then the company could take the position that Elizabeth shows
    both disloyalty and bad judgment in opposing it as vigorously
    as she has. But if the CDC proposal is essentially a snow job,
    then Elizabeth might think she has no choice but fight it.
    She's certainly within her rights and the company would be
    entirely unjustified to penalize her for exposing its
    fraudulent claims. If this should happen, CDC is probably not
    the kind of company Elizabeth wants to work for anyway.

  • Posted 14 years and 1 month ago

    People like to advise someone in Elizabeth Dorsey's
    situation, "You cannot serve two masters." The advice confuses
    Dorsey's situation with that of a slave.

    A slave has a master, an owner with absolute power over him.
    Only one person can have absolute power over you at any one
    time. You can only serve that master properly by serving no
    other. A slave with divided loyalties is, by definition, a bad

    Dorsey is not a slave. She is a free person. A free person
    has no master. Having no master leaves her free to develop
    relationships with whom she pleases. With such relationships
    come loyalties, commitments, and other interests. Sooner or
    later some of those interests will come in conflict. Freedom is

    Freedom is especially messy for engineers. The engineer,
    simply by working as an engineer, undertakes to serve the
    public, clients, employer, and profession--four "masters". The
    engineer also tries to serve himself in a morally appropriate
    way. That is, he tries to earn a decent living by serving
    public, clients, employer, and profession in the way engineers
    should. Each profession tries to define itself so that, for
    example, serving the public does not conflict with serving
    one's employer. But, since human foresight is weak, such
    conflicts still occur.

    Dorsey has conducted herself as a good engineer should. Not
    only has she used her engineering knowledge to benefit her
    employer, she has made it available to a citizen's group she
    believes to be serving the public interest. She has, in the
    words of the NSPE Code III. 2.a, "[worked] for the advancement
    of the safety, health, and well-being of [her] community." And,
    as a result, she is in trouble.

    Her employer has asked her to lobby for it. Lobbying is
    normally the responsibility of Public Relations (or some other
    department without engineers). Nonetheless, engineers may
    properly participate in lobbying as engineers. They may provide
    help on technical questions. An engineer could, for example,
    properly make a presentation to Parkville's city council
    explaining how CDC's plan would protect the environment.

    An engineer's participation in lobbying is, however,
    necessarily limited. An engineer cannot put the weight of her
    professional judgment behind whatever her client or employer
    wants. She must believe what she says. Deception cannot be part
    of her job. Engineering codes of ethics are unanimous on that.
    (NSPE Code III.3.a.)

    Yet, down the chain of command has come this request for
    Dorsey's non-technical help in lobbying for CDC's proposal.
    What can be said about the request itself? There is, I think,
    nothing inherently wrong with it. But for her interest in
    Parkville's environment, Dorsey might have been happy to do as
    asked, lobbying not as engineer or loyal employee, but simply
    as Liz Dorsey, commuter (someone who would like to work nearer

    So, David Jensen, her supervisor, has no reason not to
    convey the request to her. Indeed, whether he knows of her
    activities in Parkville or not,he has an obligation to give her
    the chance to decide for herself what she will do (as well as
    an obligation to his superiors to do as asked). He should,
    however, consider which Dorsey he is asking (engineer, loyal
    employee, or commuter). Which he thinks he is asking will
    affect his tone and may well affect how Dorsey responds.

    Dorsey's problem is the result of her (properly) having a
    life of her own about which her employer (or a part of it) does
    not know. CDC has ignorantly put Dorsey in a bind. What should
    she do? If Jensen sounds at all like a superior when he asks
    her to lobby, Dorsey's first impulse will probably be to
    protect her privacy, avoid confrontation, and tell a "white
    lie". While such lies are (generally) morally permissible, they
    are not consistent with an engineer serving her employer as a
    faithful agent. White lies do not meet "the highest standard of
    integrity [in professional relations]". (NSPE Code III.1] An
    engineer who feels it necessary to tell an employer white lies
    should seek a new employer. Something has gone seriously wrong
    between her and her employer.

    What should Dorsey do? She might begin by explaining
    everything to Jensen and asking his advice. He is a potential
    ally. He may well dislike having to ask a subordinate to do
    something "political". He may know how firm the request is,
    what assumptions it rests on, and how best to respond. The
    request is not necessarily written in stone. It might even be
    written in water, no sooner made than forgotten. Senior
    executives do not always appreciate the effect their works will
    have on subordinates. Jensen is more likely to be helpful if
    treated as a helper.

    But let's suppose the worst. Though Dorsey seeks Jensen's
    help, he eventually sighs in exasperation, "I'm only the
    messenger. You must decide for yourself and take the
    consequences." What should Dorsey do now? She must, I think,
    say something like this: "Sorry. No can do. I've been working
    with the Parkville Environmental Quality Committee for more
    than a year now. They'll certainly oppose CDC's plan. I don't
    want to choose between CDC and my neighbors. Tell the people
    upstairs that I have a conflict of interest."

    Dorsey should, I think, say something similar to the
    Parkville Environment Quality Committee even if she believes
    CDC is clearly in the wrong. Unless she is willing to quit CDC
    now, she should not directly help the Committee. The most she
    should do is advise the Committee on how to find another
    engineer. She should do no more than this for at least three

    First, openly confronting CDC is likely to poison her
    relations with her superiors. She has access to information
    outsiders would not have. CDC probably has no way to know
    whether any of that information is relevant to the Parkville
    plan. They are therefore likely to view her as a potential spy,
    an enemy within.

    Second, the public is likely to suppose that she knows more
    than she in fact does. Employees generally do not openly oppose
    their employer unless it is doing something outrageous. Dorsey
    is likely to be identified as a CDC employee. Her opposition
    will therefore carry more weight than it would had she no
    connection with CDC. CDC will find her status as an employee
    working against it. Unless CDC has done something to deserve
    that disadvantage, Dorsey should not treat her employer as if
    it does.

    Third, Dorsey probably can't conduct herself properly while
    working for CDC and helping the Committee. The more headlines
    she gets for the Committee, the more likely her relations at
    work are to go sour. The more her work relations sour, the more
    likely she is to overdo or underdo what both CDC and the
    Committee need to have done right. She would not be able to
    provide either with the independent judgment she guarantees
    anyone for whom she works as an engineer.

    So, she should thankfully take Bartlett's advice when it
    comes. "Cooling it" will allow her honorably to maintain good
    relations with both her employer and her neighbors. Being an
    engineer does not require her to choose between them this

  • Posted 14 years and 1 month ago

    Elizabeth Dorsey is involved in a moral dilemma arising from
    a conflict in roles. Her role as a citizen of Parkville and an
    environmental conservationist is in conflict with her role as
    an employee of CDC, Inc. Role conflicts always present
    difficult ethical challenges because they test loyalties and
    commitments (Nelson and Peterson 1982).

    This commentary will first consider Elizabeth's personal
    dilemma as presented in the case study, from Part I through
    Part XII. After consideration of Elizabeth's situation, a few
    additional questions arising from the field of environmental
    ethics will be presented.

    I & II

    Elizabeth becomes aware of the role conflict. Her employer
    is seeking expansion space, and none is to be found in the
    inner city where the firm is now located. Parkville's
    recreational and wildlife area is an attractive site for CDC,
    but it is Elizabeth's hometown and she has been instrumental in
    keeping commercial development out of the area.

    Elizabeth's situation is made more difficult by the pressure
    exerted by CDC management. This pressure is not appropriate.
    David Jensen should not accede to Jim Bartlett's request,
    whether or not David is aware of Elizabeth's role on the
    Parkville Environmental Quality Committee. David should defend
    Elizabeth based on her value to CDC as an engineer, not as a
    potential political agent.

    The type of pressure Jim Bartlett seeks to exert on
    Elizabeth would use her merely as a means to an end, rather
    than respecting her as an intrinsically valuable human being
    (Rachels 1986, pp. 114-117). What he is demanding of her has no
    relationship whatsoever to her professional obligations.

    David should inform Elizabeth of Jim Bartlett's request, so
    she will be better able to assess her situation and make
    informed choices. This information should be presented in a
    non-threatening way, and David should also assure Elizabeth of
    his support.

    In his discussion with Elizabeth, David may be able to gain
    some insights regarding the environmental quality of the
    Parkville site. Her opinions may be useful to the CDC Planning
    Committee, so they can be more informed as to the impact of the
    committee's proposal on the environment.

    III & IV

    Elizabeth is presented with the opportunity to reveal her
    conflict. The sooner she discusses this with David, the better.
    Employers have an obligation to avoid placing employees in
    situations of apparent conflict of interest, but in order to do
    so, they must be informed. If David isn't already aware of her
    past work, Elizabeth should definitely discuss this with him
    and enlist his support. She may be headed for an unpleasant
    confrontation and she will need informed allies, whose support
    is founded in mutual understanding and trust.


    The dilemma presented in Part V should never have arisen.
    Truthfulness earlier would have kept Elizabeth out of this
    situation. Avoiding truthfulness in conflict of interest
    situations merely delays the confrontation and makes it more

    David now is in a very awkward situation. He has been forced
    to admit to his superior that a subordinate has been less than
    candid with him. His ability, and his desire, to support
    Elizabeth in later confrontations may have been damaged along
    with his credibility. However, neither David nor Jim is
    justified in ordering Elizabeth to "cool it." Such action
    involves excessive demands for loyalty and is clearly an abuse
    of management authority (Martin and Schinzinger 1989,


    The option presented in Part VI is a good approach. It
    effectively takes Elizabeth out of the controversy. She won't
    help. She is not friendly with the Council, and she identifies
    the reason. She doesn't support CDC's proposal and makes it
    clear that she couldn't possibly be an effective advocate for
    CDC even if she did support the proposal.

    This action shifts the burden for the ethical dilemma back
    to CDC management. Elizabeth has not threatened to use her
    position to either undermine CDC plans, or to profit within the
    firm from her unique relationship with Parkville.


    Jim again demands that pressure be exerted on Elizabeth to
    "cool it." David should discuss with Jim the moral implications
    of this pressure. Also, David has the responsibility to inform
    Elizabeth again of her precarious situation. If David really
    values her as a person, he will offer to help sort out the
    alternatives and potential consequences with her. Combining
    their two perspectives may enhance understanding.


    Elizabeth should not break confidentiality with her employer
    when the opportunity is presented. She has some responsibility
    to her employer in this regard. The information will soon
    become public. Elizabeth's neighbors may be upset with her, but
    she should be able to articulate her reasons for
    confidentiality. Reference could be made to the ABET Code of
    Ethics which states that "Engineers shall treat information
    coming to them in the course of their assignments as
    confidential." Some have noted that this statement is too broad
    (Martin and Schinzinger 1989, pp. 182-188). Certainly, employer
    confidentiality should be breached in cases involving public

    Other alternatives could be defended on moral principles,
    should Elizabeth be absolutely convinced that her silence will
    prevent proper public planning procedures from occurring. A
    careful assessment of potential outcomes should be undertaken
    before Elizabeth reveals her privileged information.


    In Part IX, Elizabeth is forced to evaluate the strengths of
    her conflicting commitments. Proceeding further publicly may
    seriously jeopardize her career with CDC. Other role conflicts
    may also emerge at this point, such as her role as economic
    provider to her family. Her public position really shouldn't
    jeopardize her future with CDC, as it has nothing to do with
    job performance. However, in this circumstance, the threat is
    clear. Certainly, any informed party would find it acceptable
    for Elizabeth to step aside and let the CDC proposal be judged
    on its own merits.


    Elizabeth decides to make a public statement. If she is
    going to speak out, it should be done in this way. She has a
    right to political positions as a citizen. This includes the
    right to provide input to land-use planning decisions. But she
    has correctly expressed these opinions in general terms,
    consistent with her past public positions on the subject. The
    media may establish the connection between Elizabeth and CDC,
    but she importantly has not directly and specifically
    criticized her employer in the public arena.

    However, Elizabeth's public statement does carry some
    important connotations. It may actually serve to "muddy" the
    decision-making process so that Parkville residents are not
    able to look objectively at the CDC proposal. Hopefully,
    Elizabeth has carefully considered her unique position of
    influence prior to speaking out.

    With regard to the continuing threats from Jim Bartlett,
    David should reply forthrightly. He should tell Jim that he did
    convey Jim's warnings to Elizabeth, but that he tempered the
    information with his own judgment and offered Elizabeth his
    support to exercise her conscience.

    There may be a component of sex discrimination in Jim
    Bartlett's attitude. Special care is required of managers in
    situations where males have traditionally held dominant
    management positions. In these situations, female employees
    find it more difficult to be assertive. David should ask Jim if
    he would make the same implied threats and charges of
    disloyalty towards a male employee in Elizabeth's position.

    XI & XII

    Parts XI and XII investigate the perspectives of the
    Committee for Environmental Quality and the typical Parkville
    citizen. Elizabeth should discuss her opinions with the
    Committee for Environmental Quality, but she shouldn't take a
    leadership role unless she is willing to jeopardize her

    It is probably more important that Elizabeth ask to discuss
    her concerns with the CDC Planning Committee, especially if her
    concerns are founded in specific issues of unique environmental
    sensitivity. Elizabeth is not going to be an effective advocate
    on either side, for her motives will be questioned by both
    sides. Her conflicting roles inject unnecessary confusion.
    Parkville residents should be allowed to review the CDC
    proposal objectively. Consideration of all the facts in an open
    public forum should enable the community to judge the proposal
    on its own merits.

    Additional Questions

    The role conflicts encountered by Elizabeth in this case
    study are so interesting that one might overlook some equally
    interesting moral questions from the field of environmental
    ethics (Martin and Schinzinger 1989, pp 262-278). Space does
    not permit discussion of these questions, but a thorough review
    of the case should include the following:

    1. Why does Elizabeth commute 60 miles each day if she is
      truly concerned about environmental quality? What form of
      transportation does she use?

    2. Is the Parkville site unique? Is it particularly
      sensitive to development? Or is this a case of the "Not In My
      Backyard" objection to changing land use?

    3. Has Parkville become an exclusive community for affluent
      commuters, and if so, have the original residents been
      displaced by the high taxes associated with preservation of
      undeveloped land?

    4. What about the citizens who live in the big city, those
      who can't afford to live in Parkville? Do they have regular
      access to the environmentally protected area, or is it
      enjoyed only by the residents of Parkville?

    5. Denial of the CDC proposal may result in further
      congestion and pollution of the inner city. What are the
      ethical implications resulting from this alternative?

    6. Can communities like Parkville hold out forever? There
      are many examples of quality environmental projects involving
      cooperative business and government alliances. Maybe this is
      the best opportunity Parkville will ever have to preserve its
      quality of life, considering economic and environmental
      factors. Is it possible to sacrifice a little in order to
      preserve most of an environmental asset?

    7. Consider the implication of CDC's plans as they impact
      the inner city. Abandoning the current location will reduce
      the tax base that supports city services. How will this
      affect those who must live in the city?

    These questions deal with broader environmental issues. They
    are not directly related to Elizabeth Dorsey's dilemma. If we
    had specific answers to the questions about Parkville, however,
    we might be able to better assess the fundamental moral
    principles guiding Elizabeth's reasoning.

    Suggested Readings:

    1. Martin, Mike W. and R. Schinzinger 1989. Ethics in
      Engineering (2nd edition), McGraw-Hill, Inc., New York,

    2. Nelson, Carl and S. R. Peterson 1982. "Conflicts of Roles
      in Engineering Ethics," Journal of Professional Issues in
      Engineering, American Society of Civil Engineers, New York,
      NY, Vol. 108, No. E11, January, pp. 7-11

    3. Rachels, James 1986. The Elements of Moral Philosophy,
      Temple University Press, Philadelphia, PA, pp. 114-117.

Cite this page: "Company Interests and Employee Involvement in Community" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 6/15/1992 OEC Accessed: Saturday, October 10, 2020 <>