Incapacitated Administrator Ethical Problem

© Copyright 1998 by John Halleck

Any company that provides computer services is likely to have files belonging to many different people on its system. The more people you have, the more likely it is that you will eventually have files for people no longer able to take care of their own affairs.

Such problems can occur with customers, or with one's own employees, or even one's administrators.

Here at the University of Utah, we've had all these issues come up. Many of the ethical decisions are already made for us here by University Policy, and many of the decisions get bumped up to University Legal to make. In an organization that doesn't have its own legal department, such decisions have to be made by the computer administrators themselves.

Many of the issues below are (in real life) decided by people attempting to apply their ethical experience in life to the new situations. Since such items come up unexpectedly, administrators often make decisions that their hindsight says were not the right ones. Maybe a little discussion now will make it easier for someone to make the "right" decision later.

The issues below are all taken from experience here. The names have been changed to avoid complications. Some supporting facts have been changed slightly to make the issues clearer.

Incapacitated Administrator Issues

(The following is really a conglomeration of three incidents.)

An administrator here (Nick Klaws) had a sports accident that involved major head trauma. He was totally out of action for a month, and pretty much useless for another three.

He, like many folk, used his account for both personal and professional uses.

Do we have the right to check his mail to see what problems were in progress? Should one person do this to minimize the spread of personal information or should it be done by a committee to insure that things are being done openly and above board?

The systems group volunteered to his supervisor that they could easily make a list of everyone sending him mail, so that those people sending University problems to him directly could be contacted. Should this list be obtained?

Some companies have a strict "No personal stuff on your work account" policy. Some people ignore such a policy or bend it. If the company had such a policy would it change your answers?

The courts have repeatedly ruled that one's employer owns the files you have on the employer's system (absent prior agreement). This changes the legal issues... does it change the ethical issues?

--- Actual comments of local administrators trying to bring prior experience to the problem:

"I turned down the list of the people he was getting mail from. If it's a real problem they'll finally get mad enough to contact someone else here."

"I didn't want to contact the people that were sending him mail. If they were sending him personal mail I'd be in the position of having to give them the bad news, and I don't have the [courage] to notify all of them of what happened."

"He's working on many projects, both assigned and on his own. There is no way to know what we needed of his stuff without looking through all of it."

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