13 votes

I'm struggling with a potential ethical violation at work; feedback needed

I have a work-related ethics question, and I thought the fine people here on tildes were perfect to give feedback. I'll try to be brief but still give all of the information.

Background

I work for an energy utility. This company isn't a charity, but it is a non-profit. We are owned by the people who buy power from us (called "members"). We don't profit off of the electricity we sell to our members, but we do generate extra electricity to sell to other utilities (mostly to for-profit ones). Any profit we make is either set aside for future use or is sent out to the members as a check. Yes, our members actually get a check each year. This cooperative was built to serve rural communities since at that point in history profit-driven companies weren't willing to spend the money to run electricity to these communities. We cover 90% (geographically) of our state, along with portions of a neighboring state. We generate using wind, hydro, solar, coal, and natural gas. I don't remember the exact numbers, but I believe roughly 30%-40% of our generation comes from renewables, and we now have a dedicated team researching nuclear power (SMNR) and energy storage (which would allow us to further shift to renewables).

Context

There is a PAC (an entity that throws money at politicians in exchange for votes) for rural electric cooperatives that we participate in. This PAC can only accept donations from our members or employees. While the stated purpose is to advocate for rural cooperatives in general, I personally think that largely translates into advocating for fossil fuels.

Every year there is a 10-day period in August where they start asking us employees to donate. Anyone can donate at any time, this is just the time that they emphasize it. Leadership has REPEATEDLY emphasized that there is no pressure and that our supervisors can't see who has and hasn't donated. I've been here nearly five years, and they've said this each time. I know that under the previous CEO (he left ~10 years ago) there was pressure to donate, and that's probably why they emphasize this now.

Issue

I've discovered however that the leadership CAN see information on who has donated and how much. PAC donations are public information, and the names and amounts can be easily seen online if you know where to look. I do believe that my division leader didn't know this, though I can't really know whether the other leadership did or didn't. There's no way to know if any supervisors have looked at this data or made decisions on it. After I brought it up to my division leader he thanked me and said he will send this new information out to our division.

However, communicating this to the rest of the company is beyond his control. He's alerted the people who can do this but what they do is up to them. While my division doesn't really care who donates, I get the impression that other divisions feel differently. IT has a profoundly different culture than the rest of the company. Senior leaders say there's no pressure, but that's not neciserily the case for supervisors and managers. It's been implied to me that the teams that work in power production, transmission planning, etc still have expectations about donations.

What to do?

So here's the core ethics question: Is it unethical for senior leadership to withhold this new information about the visibility of donations from the rest of the company? The assurance of anonymity was intended to reassure us that there would be no retaliation for those who don't donate and that there would be no favoritism for those who do.

Is this just a small thing that's not really important? If this is an issue, how significant is it? It's obviously not "dumping toxic waste in the river" bad, but it still feels like it must have some level (or potential level) of impact. If this is an issue, what actions would you personally take? How much would you be willing to risk taking action on this?

Thanks in advance, I just want to do the right thing.

7 comments

  1. [4]
    Omnicrola
    Link
    Short answer : Yes, that seems unethical. Longer answer: In the scheme of things it doesn't seem like a huge deal, however it also seems like one of those small things that can be symptoms of...

    Short answer : Yes, that seems unethical.

    Longer answer:
    In the scheme of things it doesn't seem like a huge deal, however it also seems like one of those small things that can be symptoms of larger problems. Like you point out, there are potential knock-on effects for those in different areas of the company with different work cultures. I view it as sort of a litmus test of the integrity of individuals and of the organization at large.

    As for what to do, this seems like a prime candidate to contact some local/state press about. You can decide how anonymous to be about it depending on how much attention you're willing to bring to yourself. Pitching it as an article examining the integrity of a publicly owned utility might get some attention.

    6 votes
    1. [3]
      Grendel
      Link Parent
      Do you think it's significant enough for any news outlet to actually be interested in it? There's nothing that's actually illegal about it, more that they made a mistake they didn't bother to...

      Do you think it's significant enough for any news outlet to actually be interested in it? There's nothing that's actually illegal about it, more that they made a mistake they didn't bother to correct. Sadly, since I'm the one who brought it to management I'd be a pretty big target if the news was contacted. Even if someone else in my division does it after the correction is sent out I'll likely be the first person looked at :(

      I certainly don't want to lose my job over it, since it's not causing physical/financial harm to anyone, and doesn't affect anyone outside of the company.

      I am especially interested in what will be communicated during next year's campaign, as that would be much more intentional.

      3 votes
      1. [2]
        Jakobeha
        Link Parent
        My opinion: I don't think it would be interesting to the news right now. Honestly it seems kind of technical and unfortunately people like simple answers. However, if anyone actually gets...

        My opinion: I don't think it would be interesting to the news right now. Honestly it seems kind of technical and unfortunately people like simple answers.

        However, if anyone actually gets retaliated against because of low donations, and you can prove that (e.g. by looking at donations vs. who gets promoted and reprimanded), then it would be interesting to the news and probably a legal issue as well.

        So maybe start documenting stuff, but don't actively speak out yet. After all, the other leaders may also realize they can't see the information or just not care, and nothing may come out of it.

        6 votes
        1. Grendel
          Link Parent
          It's funny you mention that. The donation data goes back 10 years, and promotions are always announced on the company newsletter/intranet site. I guess I could do some digging and see if any...

          It's funny you mention that. The donation data goes back 10 years, and promotions are always announced on the company newsletter/intranet site.

          I guess I could do some digging and see if any trends appear.

          5 votes
  2. [2]
    NoblePath
    Link
    One question you admirably haven’t voiced, but probably should consider: what are the personal consequences to you? I’m guessing it would not be hard to pinpoint the source of any link.

    One question you admirably haven’t voiced, but probably should consider: what are the personal consequences to you? I’m guessing it would not be hard to pinpoint the source of any link.

    2 votes
    1. Grendel
      Link Parent
      I've definitely considered that, and that's why I asked others how much they'd be willing to risk on this. I'm willing to stand up for what's right and risk repercussions for it, but it does need...

      I've definitely considered that, and that's why I asked others how much they'd be willing to risk on this. I'm willing to stand up for what's right and risk repercussions for it, but it does need to be something that's actually "worth it" so to speak.

      I've learned that doing things because of principle rather than impact (e.g. spending an hour fighting a $5 dollar charge you didn't make) can often be driven by pride

      3 votes
  3. bkimmel
    Link
    Having worked in it for a decade, I would point to the fact that this is an entire class of its own in law. So the good news is you don't have to think about it yourself that hard. I know "legal"...

    Having worked in it for a decade, I would point to the fact that this is an entire class of its own in law. So the good news is you don't have to think about it yourself that hard. I know "legal" is not the same as "ethical", but it's not a bad place to start and the FEC guidelines are mostly written to be read by normal people: https://www.fec.gov/help-candidates-and-committees/taking-receipts-ssf/who-can-and-cant-contribute-to-ssf/ .

    2 votes