Flight is Also Risky

The IEEE in 1999 listed a case called “Flight is Also Risky”. The case describes the story of Ralph Sims, a senior engineer at a military company called SuperCom. After being assigned to a new division, a subordinate informed Ralph of a test that was being conducted. This test breached a contract between the clients (the government) and SuperCom. However, this new test is cheaper, and is just as effective as the test specified in the contract. It also didn’t harm anyone in the public. After advising his managers of this breach, SuperCom decided to keep going with this improved test. Ralph decided to leave the company, signing an nondisclosure agreement (NDA) with SuperCom for his severance pay. Three years later, SuperCom was prosecuted for breaching the contract. Ralph cooperated with the prosecutor, going against his NDA. However, Ralph was still prosecuted, as he led the department at the time.

Was there anything Ralph could have done? Was SuperCom at fault?

Was Ralph at fault?

Ralph faced a dilemma due to his integrity and respect for the law. He left the company to get away from the predicament but went on to sign a NDA. The severance pay is presumed to conceal the contract breach from the public which contradicts to his honesty and ethics. However, it is pertinent to note that he needs that pay for living and independence. 

Ralph could have done something differently though. As someone who has considerable expertise in the technology, he could have proposed a cheaper way to conduct the initially agreed-upon test. This could make up for the financial concern of the company. However, this can be disputed because it is not his responsibility to go that far by himself as it will anger his superiors by bypassing them. In contrast, from the utilitarian perspective, SuperCom is actually able to do more than what Ralph is capable of in terms of legal expertise.

Additionally, he could have consulted the company’s legal department for insights and alternatives to remedy the problem or simply confer the seriousness and severe repercussions it could cause to his superiors. Although it is not unusual to presume that this action might be menacing to many parties; as a manager with extensive credibility, it is for him to uphold to avoid deceptive acts, to take steps to prevent corrupt practices or professional misconduct, and declare conflicts of interest.

The other alternative would be for Ralph to whistle-blow, which will absolve him from being charged with complicity. This then should have spared him thousands of dollars in the court process. However, this would most probably cost him his job and his reputation. As this still appears disputable, deontologically, it is not his duty to accomplish the action especially not without the knowledge of his superiors. Besides that, it is unfair for him as he will need to take on a huge burden. Despite that, it is of his intellectual virtue to put his vast experience and expertise to good use as this action is potentially remedial to the issue.

In short, simply leaving the company didn’t solve anything. Instead, he should have proceeded with an action that would have been beneficial to all parties  involved

Was SuperCom wrong?

By initially breaching the contract, SuperCom is definitely at wrong here. They did not rework the contract, even after they were informed by Ralph. The question, therefore, is could they have done anything else? The details of their location are unclear, but in general, contract modification is generally accepted as impossible unless all parties agree to the change. Whether or not SuperCom contacted the government to change this is unconfirmed.

Regardless, was it wrong of SuperCom to assume no wrongdoing in this circumstance? By using an effectiveness argument, we can contend that the shorter, cheaper test is as efficient as the agreed, contractual test, with no adverse effects to public health or safety. So what is the harm?

Undeniably, there is an economic argument that can be made. By doing the cheaper test, SuperCom stands to save money. The amount of money is not quantified, but an assumption can be made that the amount is big, as there is little chance that SuperCom will undertake this risk of contract breach without a big payoff. Recent studies (1984-2007) suggest that there is a relationship between private military companies and corruption, demonstrating a possibility of greed.

There are a few options available for the company. The most obvious will be submitting a contract review to consider the changes, which is common in manufacturing and construction. This allows the company to conduct the simplified test legally. However, this might cause deduction to the contract sum. Doing a contract review is simply common sense, but from a utilitarian standpoint, the company will lose profit from essentially giving the client what they want, making it a bad decision.

Otherwise, the company should follow the initially agreed contract until the renewal time, which is a suitable platform to put forward the new test. If conducting the initially agreed test leads to profit loss, they can submit a cost revaluation to access the cost of the test for the remaining period before the end of the contract. From a deontological point of view, this is the best action considering that a company objective is to make a profit. Professionally, this allows the company to declare conflicts and prevent any misconduct.

Besides that, the company can also appoint their engineers to increase the effectiveness of the initial test, but still comply with the contracts’ specification. This will be a better option rather than totally amending the agreed test conduct. However, it is common sense not to improve the old test because the new one is just as effective. It also obeys virtue theory, as it complies with the contract.

These arguments suggest that SuperCom should have just acted on Ralph’s initial suggestion, making them wrong. However, as engineering students, this case is a good reminder that running away may not be enough to solve a problem.

43: Muhammad Dell, Hakim Zulbahari, Xin Yan Ching, Rohan Philip, Muhammad Farid, Muhammad Khosim

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7 thoughts on “Flight is Also Risky

  1. In my opinion, Ralph is innocent. He did the right thing, at least for himself, for leaving the company of which he thinks at wrong for breaching the signed contract.

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  2. From my point of view, at an engineer, Ralph did the right thing by leaving the company. Ralph should not worry about his ethics and integrity as an engineer. his decision to leave the company discreetly proves to show that he respects the decision of the company, but could no longer work under such environment. he acknowledges his fiduciary responsibility as a former employee thus has the obligation of ensuring that the company does not get bad repo.

    The very reason Ralph left the company due to their unethical conducts further highlights his integrity as an engineer.

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  3. Comment Retrieved from Facebook: I do not think that Ralph is at fault at all here. Ralph was only a single engineer in a company full of engineers. Even if he could propose a cheaper way, it would be difficult to get it approved unless he could gather a whole group of people opposing the new test. Even if he discusses with the legal department on alternative remedies, it would be pointless if the information can’t get to his superiors. I do not think it was wrong for him to sign the NDA and take the severance as he would need money for his living and independence. Ralph is in a company full of superior’s and equals that are doing things outside the contract without the client’s knowledge (corruption) and from the looks of it, everyone else besides him is ok with that. If he goes against and fights for what is in the contract ( 1 vs 1000 people), he won’t stand a chance. Better to leave this corrupt practice unless I have an opposition party with me. (like the government vs the opposition party).

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  4. Comment Retrieved from Facebook: Ralph is an agent of the company. He felt the company was doing something wrong and tried to correct it. When the company refused, he decided to leave. So far, so good. Unfortunately, the severance package and the NDA muddy the waters, because it seems he is being paid to keep quiet. If he had left without payments or conditions, he would probably never have been a party to the lawsuit – a witness, at most. So the moral is you can run, but you can’t take anything with you.

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  5. Comment retrieved from Facebook: I feel at odds with myself for saying this but employees come and go. Companies need to answer to their shareholders. Ralph can do whatever he wants to do. As should the company.

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