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Requested to Falsify Data



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
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.
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Authoring Institution (obsolete) Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, Western Michigan University
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Year 1992
Publisher National Academy of Engineering, Online Ethics Center
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  • Posted 12 years and 11 months ago


    Some ethical decisions are a matter of principle, such as
    whether an action would be honest or dishonest. It would be
    dishonest of Stephanie to rework the report. But ethical
    decisions often involve considerations of consequences as well.
    One is sometimes justified in telling a lie to avoid hurting
    someone's feelings or in professional undercover work, such as
    espionage. Would dishonesty in Stephanie's situation be

    Stephanie could be persuaded by Adam's claim that the few
    gallons don't matter, that the regulations are an unnecessary
    nuisance anyway, and follow his order. On this one occasion, by
    this one company, the few gallons don't make much difference in
    the preservation of a clean environment. But what if every
    company reasoned the same way. The question, "What if everyone
    did that?" is ethically relevant. What if everyone who did just
    a little damage to the environment rationalized that it was so
    little as to be negligible? If each company violates
    environmental standards by just a little, rationalizing that
    such a little bit is negligible, the sum total of so many
    little bits is a lot and is not negligible.

    Another issue here is the question of legality. Even if the
    spill is so minor as to hardly be worth reporting, to falsify
    data to avoid reporting it is breaking the law. In some cases,
    breaking the law is justified, when the law is unjust, such as
    racist laws in South Africa. If a law is regarded as a
    nuisance, as these regulations are regarded by Adam, is that
    grounds for ignoring it?

    If Stephanie isn't willing to rework the report, she still
    has several options. She can resign from the company. Or she
    could ask to be reassigned to another department. Or she can
    try to keep her job but ask Adam to get someone else to rework
    the report. In any of these ways, she can maintain her personal
    integrity by not being a participant in a dishonest and illegal
    manipulation of the figures. Is that all that is ethically
    required of her, or does she have an obligation to engage in a
    stronger protest, such as by making a public issue out of
    Adam's asking her to do something dishonest and illegal? She
    could begin by pointing out to Adam, on the spot, that is what
    he is trying to do. She could also try to report it to his
    superior. If Adam proceeded to have the figures reworked by
    someone else, she could report it to the press or to state


    Stephanie is refusing to be dishonest and standing up to
    Adam. She is maintaining her integrity and self-respect. She is
    also taking herself away from the company, which will probably
    continue its practices as before. She is looking out for her
    future career, but not doing everything that she could to make
    an issue out of Adam's unethical demand upon her. Should she do
    more, and would it be worth the trouble? The record of
    whistleblowers isn't very good. Usually they are personally
    hurt by demotions and firings and don't get anything done to
    change improper practices. Is that grounds for taking care of
    herself and leaving the company to carry on in its harmful


    Bruce's position may be different from Stephanie's. He might
    have much more difficulty getting another job. The spill may
    not have so clearly exceeded the minimum requiring its report.
    He hasn't yet been ordered by Adam to fudge any data. But in
    other respects it is the same. If he deliberately changed the
    figures, it would be dishonest and illegal. And he could still
    ask, "What if everyone did that?"


    The state's environmental protection agency is charged with
    enforcing regulations, but sometimes the violations are so
    minor that it is not worth the trouble to make an issue of
    them. The agency would, however, want its data to be accurate
    in order to make informed decisions. Falsified reports
    interfere with informed public policy.

    The CEO of XYZ has a responsibility to owners to run an
    organization with a good reputation, and spills, even minor
    ones, are bad publicity. But then engaging in falsifying data,
    if found out, might be even worse publicity. The CEO, however,
    ought to want XYZ to be an organization operating within the
    law, even aside from the bad publicity if illegal activities
    became known.

    Attorneys for XYZ would find it very difficult if data
    clearly indicated that the spill should be reported, and it
    came to be known that data was falsified to avoid that. But
    they are paid to defend the company in such situations; their
    job is to present the company's point of view in the
    adversarial system, and it is environmental regulations and
    their apparent violation which keeps them in business. The
    adversarial legal system makes attorneys the agent of their
    employers, not judges as to whether the company was correct or
    incorrect in its practices. If the attorneys think that they
    are defending the company in irresponsible practices, should
    they refuse to represent the company?

    Other industries faced with similar environmental problems
    may be in competition with XYZ. They might regard it as unfair
    competition if XYZ is failing to acknowledge spills and not
    having to spend the money to clean them up or the public
    relations money to combat the bad publicity. Or they may take
    the attitude that it is common practice to fudge data when a
    little rounding off would save a lot of grief, and feel
    justified in doing the same. If it is common practice, does
    that make a difference in the ethics of the matter?

  • Posted 12 years and 11 months ago

    Tad Tuleja in his book, Beyond the Bottom Line (Penguin
    Books, 1985), discusses five stakeholders of the modern
    corporation--owners, employees, customers, community members,
    and society. He claims that companies are ethically obligated
    to consider the best interests of each of these groups when
    making decisions. And he even contends that it makes good
    business sense to do so. This case can be analyzed by examining
    XYZ's responsibilities to these five groups.

    Assuming that XYZ is a public company, the stockholders are
    the owners of the company. It would be easy to say that XYZ
    stock will do better if the company never reports a chemical
    spill to the state. This is a valid assumption if XYZ truly
    never has a chemical spill. Under the present circumstances,
    however, it seems that XYZ has had a number of spills. What
    will happen to the company's stock (and, thus, the owners'
    investments) if people learn that XYZ has been covering up
    chemical spills for years? Is the potentially bad publicity
    worth the short term gain of not reporting several relatively
    minor spills as they occur?

    What are the implications of this case for the employees of
    XYZ? Clearly, Stephanie Simon's refusal to modify her data cost
    her a job. Bruce Bennett is now in the ethically uncomfortable
    position of feeling that he has to change his calculations to
    avoid angering his boss. Adam Baines' reluctance to report
    chemical spills to the state encourages his employees to change
    their data to avoid the necessity of filing reports--in other
    words, to lie. Sissela Bok reminds us in her book, Lying
    (Vintage, 1978), that lies harm the liar as well as the person
    being lie to. Adam's reluctance to file reports with the state
    is potentially harmful to both the state and to Bruce.

    How are XYZ's customers affected by this situation? XYZ has
    a reputation as "an environmental leader in the chemical
    industry." XYZ probably has gained a number of customers
    because of this reputation, but this reputation appears to be
    unjustified. Is it ethical to solicit business from customers
    based on a corporate reputation that is misleading? Can an
    "environmental leader" ignore regulations when it feels that
    the industry is over-regulated? Do its customers deserve to
    know this fact?

    XYZ has violated its responsibility to its local community
    when it refuses to report chemical spills that the state has
    mandated should be reported. The state has determined the
    acceptable limits for reporting spills. XYZ violates the trust
    of the community if it does not comply with these regulations.
    If XYZ truly believes that these regulations are excessive, it
    should work to change them at the state level.

    The final corporate stakeholder, according to Tuleja, is
    society. How is society affected by XYZ's actions? Our
    democratic society is based on principles of openness and
    trust. Businesses are expected to deal with their stakeholders
    in an open manner. Individuals trust corporations to deal with
    them ethically. Of course, all corporations do not uphold these
    principles at all times. But if the majority of companies
    grossly violated these principles most of the time, our system
    would collapse. Adam Baines' actions may seem like a minor
    violation of the system. He refuses to report "a few gallons
    over the limit." But how much is enough to report? If a company
    begins to violate reporting standards, when does it decide that
    a spill is big enough to report? What happens when each company
    decides to draw the line differently? Eventually, who will
    report anything?

    Adam's actions are like the ripple that occurs when a rock
    is thrown into a pond of water. One action has an effect that
    reaches far beyond the initial circumstance. Failing to report
    a "small" chemical spill is a violation of ethics that can have
    an impact on a company's owners, employees, customers,
    community members, and even on society.

  • Posted 12 years and 11 months ago


    The most obvious interpretation of Adam's comments to
    Stephanie is that he is directing her to falsify the data so
    that the spill appears to be under the limit requiring
    reporting to the state. To be sure what he has in mind,
    Stephanie might ask him to be clearer about what he wants her
    to do. For example, she might ask him exactly what he means by
    "rework the numbers." Probably he would resist saying directly
    that he is telling her to falsify data, since this would
    incriminate him, or at least embarrass him, if the facts were
    to come out. Moreover, he might regard her request for
    clarification as an attempt to trap him in an illegal or
    improper action and this might anger him even more. However, it
    would be advisable to try to avoid any misunderstanding about
    what she is being directed to do even if she is already fairly

    If it becomes clear that falsifying data is what Adam has in
    mind, then Stephanie must weigh her duty to respect
    institutional authority, in the person of Adam, against her
    duties to conform to the environmental regulations and
    generally to protect the safety, health, and welfare of the
    general public as well as her duty not to lie or misrepresent
    the facts. While it may be true that in this one case a "few
    gallons over the limit" would have no discernible negative
    effects on the public, Stephanie should consider what the
    effects would be if everyone in the industry "bent the rules"
    in the way that Adam appears to be demanding. It is not clear
    even that Adam's directive to "rework the numbers" is a
    legitimate exercise of his authority at XYZ or that loyalty to
    her employer in this situation means doing as he says. Quite
    possibly, XYZ's long-term interests would best be served by
    Stephanie's refusing to "rework the numbers," since there is a
    possibility that the falsification would be exposed and result
    in criminal charges against XYZ or serious damage to its

    Adam's main concern seems to be the amount of time that
    would be required to fill out the forms that would go to the
    state, which is of dubious ethical significance. Based on all
    these considerations, the most reasonable course of action for
    Stephanie would be to tell Adam politely and calmly but firmly
    that she will not falsify data in her report.


    Besides agreeing to falsify data as Adam directs, it is
    difficult to think of a less constructive course of action than
    the one that she pursues here. Perhaps there is little chance
    that Adam's mind can be changed, but her actions eliminate that
    as a possibility. At the very least, Stephanie should give him
    her reasons for refusing to do as he requests. Probably he will
    not be willing to listen to Stephanie, but at least she should
    try. Furthermore, by resigning precipitously, she may be
    leaving a job that is in most respects a very good job and
    endangering her career. If the problem she is having with Adam
    could be resolved within XYZ without her taking such drastic
    action, then that would seem to be a much more satisfactory
    outcome. Also, by leaving XYZ abruptly, she does nothing to
    prevent similar situations in the future. Perhaps, Adam's
    superiors at XYZ are not fully aware of his behavior and would
    put a stop to it if it were reported to them.

    If Stephanie resigns without attempting to correct the
    problems Adam is causing her, then it is likely that her
    successor(s) will encounter the same difficulties and that
    Adam's mode of behavior will not change unless someone contests
    his decisions. Therefore, Stephanie's passing the buck to
    someone else will at best only postpone resolution of the
    problem. Adam may well make Stephanie's life unpleasant if she
    decides to defy him, and Adam's superiors may take his side of
    the argument. However, if there is a significant chance that
    Adam's behavior would be modified or curtailed in such
    situations as this one by her staying on the job, then this
    seems the most constructive choice.


    The situation that Bruce faces appears somewhat more
    problematic than the one that Stephanie found herself in, since
    it is less clear that for Bruce to "round off" in order to have
    the numbers fall below the limit for reporting to the state
    would constitute falsification of data and ethically
    impermissible lying or deception. In Bruce's case, there seems
    to be genuine uncertainty about the accuracy of the
    measurements (data) and, in particular, how significant are the
    digits that he is considering "rounding off". Engineers are
    taught early in their professional education how to tell which
    digits in calculated quantities are significant and should be
    taken into account. They also learn that measurements are often
    imprecise and can reliably be placed only within certain
    tolerances associated with the accuracy of the measuring
    instruments, the circumstances under which the measurements are
    obtained, etc. Thus, in some situations, whether a certain
    measurement is above or below a certain limit may be impossible
    to determine with assurance.

    In general, there is nothing wrong with "rounding off" if it
    is done in accordance with established engineering and
    mathematical precepts. However, if Bruce's rounding off were in
    violation of those precepts and were motivated by his desire
    not to antagonize Adam or not to jeopardize his job standing at
    XYZ, then this would be a violation of the ethical
    considerations discussed in Scenario I above. It would be wrong
    for the same reasons that Stephanie's agreeing to falsify data
    at Adam's insistence would be wrong. Bruce should make the most
    reasonable estimate possible of the dimensions of the spill in
    light of the available data and what he knows about the
    accuracy of the measuring instruments or processes, and then he
    should use that estimate in his report. He should not "round
    off" primarily for the purpose of not confronting Adam with
    "bad news". No doubt Bruce's job and his career at XYZ are
    important to him. However, it is difficult to see what ethical
    significance they have in this case.


    A member of the state's environmental protection agency
    would likely consider conformity with the state's environmental
    regulations regarding chemical spills to be the most important
    consideration and would argue that XYZ should always make a
    good faith effort to determine whether spills exceed the limits
    set by those regulations in deciding whether they should be
    reported to the state.

    The CEO at XYZ would perhaps adopt a "bottom-line mentality"
    about reporting chemical spills and want to consider the total
    long-term expected consequences based on risks of sanctions if
    the spills are reported as exceeding the regulatory limits, the
    risks of being discovered and prosecuted if the spills should
    be but are not reported to the state, the effects on consumer
    confidence in XYZ's products of the various possible outcomes,
    the effects on present and future XYZ stockholders of those
    outcomes, and the ultimate effects on profits, both short-term
    and long-term.

    XYZ's attorneys would perhaps be interested primarily in the
    likelihood that the state would file charges against XYZ for
    violating regulations by not reporting chemical spills and, if
    so, whether XYZ would be able to defend itself against the
    state if required to do so.

    XYZ's competitors in the chemical industry would perhaps be
    concerned about whether XYZ was gaining a competitive
    disadvantage over them by not incurring the expense of having
    effective protection of the environment against chemical spills
    and instead flouting the state's environmental regulations
    intended to curb such spills.

    Members of the community would, of course, be concerned
    about the risks to their lives and health that would result
    from environmental regulations concerning chemical spills not
    being conformed to by the chemical industry or not being
    effectively enforced by the state.

    It is often considered important that, in making ethical
    decisions, one's actions must be universalizable. In general
    terms, one's action is universalizable if he/she would make the
    same moral judgment if anyone else were to perform the same
    action in any situation that is similar to the current
    situation in relevant respects. This means that, if one's
    action is to pass the universalizability test, then he/she must
    be able to imagine himself/herself on the "receiving end" of
    the sort of action being contemplated and also willing to make
    the same moral judgment about the other person's performing the
    same action.

    This requirement means that Stephanie, Bruce, and Adam
    should all consider whether the actions that they are
    contemplating can be universalized before adopting them, and it
    is quite possible that doing so would allow them to eliminate
    certain courses of action from further consideration. However,
    the universalizability test will not always enable moral agents
    to resolve their disagreements, since one person may consent to
    the universalization of a certain sort of action while another
    may dissent from the very same universalized action. It seems
    that universalizability is a necessary but not a sufficient
    condition of the ethical justifiability of actions.

  • Posted 12 years and 11 months ago

    Before evaluating morally the actors in this drama, it may
    be helpful to look at Stephanie's way of handling the problem.
    Even if she did the right thing, did she do it in the right
    way? One of the important things that young professionals
    should learn as quickly as possible is that how one does
    something is sometimes as important--or almost as important--as
    what one does. The aim of a conscientious professional should
    be to avoid whistleblowing while still doing the right thing.
    Becoming a martyr should not be one's goal; rather, one's goal
    should be to act morally and responsibly while not becoming a
    martyr. This depends to a great extent on how one goes about
    doing what he believes ought to be done.

    Assuming for the moment that Stephanie did the right thing,
    how could she have done it in a way that would not be so
    confrontational? Here is where imagination is crucial. Suppose
    Stephanie had said,

    Adam, I know you are concerned about the employee time it
    takes to fill out the reports, but I feel so strongly about
    this that I would be willing to work up the reports on my own
    time if you will agree to submit them. Even if the company has
    to pay a fine, we will be on the right side of the law.

    Expressions of personal conviction such as this often have a
    strong influence on other people. However, Stephanie might
    decide that this approach would never persuade Adam and that
    another more hard-headed approach might work. She might point
    out to Adam that these excessive leaks are eventually going to
    find their way back to regulators. If the company manages to
    conceal this one, there will be others. And when the regulators
    find out, the company will be in for some severe fines and its
    reputation as an environmentally conscious manufacturer will be

    She might even decide that it is ethically permissible to
    agree to go along with Adam this time on the condition that he
    consider a different approach next time. Or perhaps she might
    simply confront him with her own misgivings--without accusing
    him of anything--and ask to be transferred. This might serve to
    stimulate his own conscience in a non-threatening way. Or
    perhaps the company has an ombudsman with whom she could

    If none of these ameliorating tactics works, Stephanie (and,
    later, Bruce) must make more difficult decisions. It is
    probably safe to assume that the small amount of additional
    pollutant is not going to be a significant health hazard. One
    moral issue, however, has to do with whether or not Stephanie
    and Bruce will participate in actions which are at least minor
    infractions of the law. There are certainly considerations of
    self-interest here. Could these two young professionals get
    into serious legal difficulties if the infractions were

    Let's say that both Stephanie and Bruce decide that a single
    minor infraction might be something their consciences could
    accept. They might reason from a utilitarian perspective, which
    requires that we maximize the well-being of everyone who is
    affected by the action. From this perspective they might reason
    that, if they refuse to obey their superior, the harm to their
    own careers would be so great and the good that would accrue to
    the public would be so small, that their harm outweighs the
    public good. (After all, from a utilitarian perspective, their
    own well-being should be considered as important as the
    well-being of any other individuals.)

    The real difficulty with this solution is that this type of
    incident will probably be repeated. It is clear to Stephanie
    and even clearer to Bruce that Adam intends to violate the law
    on a regular basis. This means that the harm to the public will
    be multiplied by many similar incidents. Stephanie and Bruce
    must also ask themselves about the consequences to other
    managers in the company and to other companies of violating the
    law on a regular basis. Whatever the final outcome of the
    analysis, this consideration makes complicity in Adam's actions
    more difficult to justify.

  • Posted 12 years and 11 months ago


    Stephanie Simon is asked to 'rework those numbers' so that
    the environmental report no longer indicates an excessive
    chemical spill. Reworking numbers to fit management's pleasure
    is dishonest, wrong and should never be done. There is no
    ethical problem about this; the problem is a personal one for
    Stephanie since presumably her career is at risk. The problem
    may seem complicated because manager Adam Baines thinks the
    regulations are excessive and the company's spill is trivial,
    which could very well be the case (Stephanie may even agree
    with this assessment); nevertheless falsification of the report
    is not the way to handle the problem.

    So what Stephanie should do is patiently explain to manager
    Adam why it would be wrong for her to falsify her data.
    Ultimately, her line must be that if he wants different data,
    he can provide it himself; let him write his own report.
    There's no need to indicate on the report why Stephanie didn't
    write it! Her course is to politely but firmly refuse, stating
    her reasonable grounds: it is a violation of ethics codes, it's
    legally risky, it compromises her credibility, it undermines
    public respect for engineers and for XYZ company. This refusal
    puts the ball in Adam's court; what move Stephanie will make
    next would depend on how Adam handles the situation. (Does he
    try to fire her for insubordination? Does he do nothing
    immediately, only to begin a campaign of harassment against her
    later? Does he refuse to recommend her for promotion? Each of
    these possibilities raises different problems. On the other
    hand, maybe he'll respect her integrity).


    Unfortunately her way of handling the situation is
    confrontational and indeed apocalyptic. She quits! Is she
    really resigning because of this one incident? If so, she
    demonstrates instable temperament at worst and bad judgment at
    best, so perhaps the incident may have served a useful purpose
    in provoking her departure. (Maybe manager Adam deliberately
    causes such incidents to see how his subordinates will

    As for her threat to send Adam's upstairs, this threat of
    course amounts to blackmail. Adam may have to face up to his
    own indiscretion in order to get out from under Stephanie's
    threats; otherwise she may find other opportunities to use it
    against him. So maybe he'd better write up the incident, admit
    what prompted her resignation, and send it upstairs himself.
    Presumably he'll learn not to ask subordinates to do something
    illegal and unethical.


    There's no special problem here. Bruce, Stephanie's
    successor, is creating problems for himself by volunteering to
    alter the data. If 'rounding off' is within acceptable
    engineering practice, so that the state agency receiving the
    report may be expected to understand that figures might be
    rounded off, then Bruce is within his rights to round off, and
    might as well do so in a way that does save the company grief.
    (A note could be added to the report indicating that figures
    have been rounded off to nearest hundred, or whatever). If
    'rounding off' is a grey area--no consensus on whether it's
    acceptable or not--then Bruce ought to follow company policy as
    presumably stated by manager Adam. To clarify that rounding off
    is company policy, Bruce might first ask Adam how he wants the
    numbers handled. But if rounding off is prohibited, Bruce can't
    do it.


    To evaluate from different points of view:

    1. Presumably the state agency wants correct figures, and
      would regard Adam's demands as unacceptable and possibly
      illegal; the agency thus might consider legal action against
      XYZ company.

    2. Does the CEO of XYZ share Adam's views about
      over-regulation? Probably he does; he therefore conforms to
      regulations in order to avoid legal problems and for reasons
      of image. There are costs which XYZ must bear, but finding
      out how to pay costs associated with regulation is part of
      the CEO's job. At the same time, if he thinks the regulations
      are excessively burdensome or environmentally unnecessary,
      the CEO has means of trying to get them changed, which he is
      undoubtedly pursuing. However skirting the regulations by
      falsifying data isn't among the CEO's options.

    3. If the attorneys haven't told CEO officials to obey the
      law, they ought to.

    4. It's not clear why other industries have any different
      problems from XYZ, or would have a different point of view.
      They may all be unhappy with the regulations, but they all
      share an equal interest in obeying them, while trying to
      change them via accepted channels.

    5. That someone's health may be adversely affected seems to
      beg the question against Adam, who presumably thinks that the
      regulations are not necessary to protect anybody's health.
      We'd want to know more about what's behind Adam's views; he
      could be wrong in thinking that the industry is
      over-regulated. As for other employees, if Adam doesn't think
      the regulations are necessary, maybe the other employees at
      XYZ don't think so either. Since they have no responsibility
      for managing XYZ, they are in a good position to favor
      evasion of the regulations, which cost the company money and
      thus endanger profits and jobs. Of course someone could take
      the view that since the regulations are put into effect by a
      state agency, they must be necessary. Perhaps this is the
      view of some of the employees at XYZ. Obviously these
      employees will want the regulations obeyed, at least up to
      the point where their own jobs are threatened.

    This question refers to "responsibly handle environmental
    problems." However the case doesn't raise this broad issue, but
    only the question of false reporting of marginal data. There is
    no challenge to Adam's statement that XYZ does a terrific job,
    environment-wise. Obeying regulations characterized as
    difficult to interpret and so on, should not be equated with
    being responsible. Nonetheless the community is likely to think
    so, because of the adverse publicity that attends revelations
    that certain companies violated regulations. What the
    community's real environmental interests are, is a question not
    within the scope of this case.

    Should the actors take into account how the community is
    likely to react to revelations of data falsifying? Certainly;
    the reaction will be adverse and against the interests of XYZ.
    If the fact that it's wrong isn't enough reason not to do it,
    then this reason might be sufficient. However lower-level
    employees might be excused for not considering the wider
    interests of the company, or even of the community. They ought
    to be honest and obey the law, for ethical reasons. They are
    entitled to their opinions about other matters, but aren't
    necessarily required to incorporate these opinions into their

Cite this page: "Requested to Falsify Data" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 6/15/1992 OEC Accessed: Friday, July 12, 2019 <>