Whistleblowing, Ethics, and Internet Use

UPDATE: Since I’m venturing into potentially controversial territory, I thought it would be a good time to remind my readers that this is my commentary on a situation that occurred in a library in California and not necessarily the opinions of my employer. I will say that I believe we are well-prepared for emergency situations, and their official approach in my view is rational, fair and on the whole, quite solid. Equally, staff are just as responsible in their actions.


A few days ago, there was a news articles I saw via LISNews about a librarian being fired because she called the police on a child porn-watcher against orders from her supervisor. Comments abound in outrage, of course. My first impression on the issue was a “how could they do that?” as well.

But it goes to show that tricky issues require forethought. Here is my final assessment of the issue. Obviously, I do not have the entire facts on this case, so I can only take the media’s report at face value. Nor am I a lawyer, so this is just a layperson’s opinion.

Ought the library have had clear polices on what to do in the case a child pornographer appears? Yes.

Ought a successful library leader have empowered his/her staff to make that phone call? Yes.

Is the library in its rights to fire the librarian who made the phone call? Also yes.

Is it likely that the librarian made an unfortunate ethical mistake? Yes.

To get why I think the way I do, you are going to have to separate the issues of effective management and professional ethics. In an ideal world, we would have bosses who always make the right decisions; who act through common sense; who establish policies and procedures ahead of time to prepare us for the hard situations; and who empower employees to make good decisions when the policies do not cover the situation. But the reality is that this is not always the case. In fact, it is rare. Most of the time we will be working in imperfect organizations. Sometimes the organizations are even outright wrong in their approaches to situations.

But working in an imperfect organization does not make it less important to think through our own decisions. In my view, this employee should have asked herself the following questions before acting:

  • Is there clear evidence of imminent public danger?

Not likely. Watching child porn is a heinous crime and the creation of the porn is absolutely harmful to children. However, it does not put the public in imminent danger. Yes, we do not want these guys on our streets. No, we should not react to the child porn watcher as we do the rapist, robber, or murderer.

  • Is he/she ultimately accountable for the actions of the organization?

No. When the grey areas hit, it is going to be the director who takes the hit for any bad decision of any employee. The director, therefore, has a right to a say in what should happen in this situation.

  • Was she/he absolutely sure that action (such as calling the police) was not going to happen after some review?

It’s hard to assess this without the facts, but I am adding the question because it is important. Just because the manager did not call the police now doesn’t mean that he/she would not make a report to a higher-up who in turn may decide that, yes, the police should be called.

  • Was he/she sure of all the facts in the case?

I’m willing to assume yes, because it does turn out that he/she was right. But my question about imminent danger could be changed significantly if the porn the accused was watching was a live show.

  • Did she have time on her side?

This is the kicker. The librarian had plenty of time to make a report to the police with lots of lovely evidence to show when they came.

In my view, the librarian should have:

  1. Made it clear to her boss that her view is that the police should be called.
  2. Record the incident with as much detail as possible. Recording the identity of the person would even be appropriate so long as the report was not going to be shared.
  3. Make sure that the details of the case make it to the CEO or Director of the library. Give the supervisor a chance to do it first. Then, pass up the report.
  4. Still no action? This is where you consider the whistle-blow. President of the board may work. Or the police. This is not going to be a career-advancing decision.

In the end, I understand that the firing of the employee is being reviewed. I also see this as a good thing. I’m not sure that firing the employee is quite the right disciplinary action, despite that I believe he/she made a mistake. Good management would come up with something more appropriate — although what would depend on a bunch of mitigating factors of which I have no knowledge.

And, in the end, you cannot always assume good management.