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Each week, The Ethics Centre’s executive director Dr Simon Longstaff will be answering your ethics questions. This week:

My employer sent me a questionnaire designed to test if my home working environment meets basic standards. If I’d answered truthfully I would have ‘failed’ the test. But what’s the point in telling the truth when I have to work at home in any case? Was it wrong to lie on the form?

Although this ethical issue seems to fall on you — as the person receiving the survey — it actually starts with your employer’s decision to request this information in the first place.

I assume they did so in order to meet their legal obligations… and perhaps conditions set by their insurer, etc. However, the process they activated was not designed to cope with circumstances like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead, the occupational health and safety checks they are trying to use were developed for a time when working from home was the exception, rather than the rule.

Back then, it made excellent sense to check that those opting to work from home could do so with good lighting, an ergonomic chair and all the other requirements one would reasonably expect to find in a safe, modern office environment.

However, for the time being, millions of people have no choice but to plonk themselves down a couch or at a kitchen table (or wherever) to work as best they can.

So, let’s imagine that your home environment is not especially suited for work. Suppose you pass on this information to your employer. Do we really think that they would rush over with a well-designed desk, chair, light, etc? Perhaps some might do so, but in the current circumstances I doubt that this would be the response.

Even if one sets aside questions of cost, are there enough new chairs, desks, computers, to make good the likely deficiencies in the working arrangements of a large percentage of the active workforce? I suspect not.

Given this, I imagine that many people have decided to collude (with their employer) in a “white lie”. Both sides know (but will not say) that to offer an honest response would probably be an exercise in futility. With this in mind, “form” triumphs over “substance” — with employees signing off on a declaration that they know not to be strictly true — but that is practically required all the same.

Now, I know that thus might seem to be a fairly minor form of deception — something to be excused because deemed to be “necessary”. However, I reckon that it is never a good thing to lie, and that those who plead necessity must first do everything they can to prevent this kind of dilemma from arising in the first place.

This is because even occasional acts of dishonesty can start to warp a culture because they suggest that core values and principles can be abandoned whenever the going gets tough.

In summary: I think it was wrong to lie on the form (even if understandable). However, it would have been far better — for all — if your employer had not put you in this invidious position in the first place.

Send your questions for Simon to [email protected], using the subject line ETHICS. Crikey will select one question to which he will respond each Friday.

Dr Simon Longstaff is executive director of The Ethics Centre. If you need support in addressing an issue or dilemma you can make an ethi-call appointment at: www.ethics.org.au.

Peter Fray

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