September 29, 2008
I was recently asked by a well known journalist if I thought it was ethical for someone to listen in on a conference call? He admitted that he had and was criticized for it. "Have I done anything wrong? He asked me. Here is what I replied."
I think that it would be perfectly ethical if the following two conditions were met:
- The person has been authorized to participate. (Participation does not always include intervention or speaking so listening-in is a form of participation.) An invitation would qualify as an authorization as long as the person inviting is allowed to do so. I can not invite someone to a party that I am not hosting unless the host agrees.
- The person identifies himself or herself to the other participants, otherwise listening in would be equivalent to eavesdropping, which I do not believe can be considered ethical.
From an ethical point of view, I think there are two other considerations.
- What is the motivation of the anonymous listener? Is it for the benefit or the detriment of the participants?
- What action will the listener take with the information obtained from listening to the conversation? Will the action be beneficial or detrimental to the participants or their organization?
The answer to these two questions will help determine whether listening-in is acceptable or not.
Before responding to the journalist, I spoke to a few of my colleagues about the practice and found out that one of them has, occasionally listened in on conference calls between a client and some senior staff. The colleague did not identify herself to the client. I do not see any major problem with it because:
- She was asked to participate to take notes of what was being said and to better understand the issues.
- The purpose of her participation was to better serve the client.
But why did she not identity herself?
She thought it was unnecessary and that the client would not mind. She is probably right. However, I think it would be more appropriate if the silent listener did identity herself in the future.
Transparency, even when one has nothing to hide is preferable to ambiguity.