Monday, May 26, 2008

Jonah and the Whale

For the sake of argument, let's say I work at a company that keeps a list of salaries in a file that has password protection.

And I want to compare my salary with everyone else's. I work in a very competitive environment and I want to be sure that I am being compensated fairly. Heck I'd like to know what my colleagues are making so I know where I stand.

I've worked for the company for four years. I have an excellent work record. No black marks for me ever. In fact, my work history is superior enough that I'm considered an up and comer.

It happens that I work for the person who knows the password to the files. One day I find out what the password is. Perhaps I see it on a piece of paper lying out on her desk. Or I watch her hands while she types it on he keyboard. Or I know her dog's name and just give it a try to see if it will work. Suddenly I'm in.

I use the password to access the secret salary files to find out where my salary stands in relation to everyone else.

Ooops, I get caught. The security system rats me out. In fact, I'm discovered while still on the computer looking at the salaries.

What should my punishment be?  Should I be put on probation. Fired outright? Should I lose my bonus? Be demoted?  Or should the cops be called to arrest me?

How about two years' probation? Any future infractions and zero tolerance would be initiated and I'd be fired. I would also lose my bonus and any future promotions would be deferred until I was off probation.

No cops need to be called to arrest me. No harm. No foul. Just a breach in judgment and my character has been brought into question.

This was not a crime of violence. Sabotage. Or an attempt to steal secrets. This was breaking the rules. Ironically, many companies pride themselves on thinking "out of the box" and breaking rules. In fact, one place I worked, the rules were -- there are no rules.  So go figure.

Interestingly, when it comes to what people make, many companies are now publishing all salaries so everybody knows what everybody else earns. Apparently it removes an entire level of anxiety in the workplace. And also removes imagined slights. Listing salaries could also help to insure that there really is equality between male/female wages. Or not.

Now, for a real life example.

There's a high school senior around here named Jonah who was caught redhanded looking at password protected class rankings and ACT scores. He is a smart AP student who may have been trusted with the password for his job as a math tutor for other students. Or he figured it out somehow. Either way he got into the files and got caught.

The administrators were alerted that someone was online in an unauthorized area by the security system. So they went around the school checking out student computers and looking at what the kids had on their screens. They caught Jonah on his laptop.

At that moment, what would you do? The two scenarios, school and workplace, are similar. Except the kid doesn't make any money. And he's not going to be around long enough to serve a probation period.

Unlike the salaries, which have traditionally been kept secret, he was looking at some information -- the class rankings -- which used to be publicly posted and not secret at all. In fact in many schools they are readily available.

This was not a crime of violence, espionage, sabotage, or theft at all. It was a kid who was nosy and didn't consider the consequences. And, as studies have shown, lack of judgment is an problem endemic among teenagers whose brains are not yet hardwired for maturity.

In the district where Jonah attends high school, the students are encouraged to be competitive, almost to a fault. But when they want to reap the fruits of their efforts and find out where all their hard work got them, the door has been slammed shut in their faces in recent years.

The administration decided that class rank at this elite high school shouldn't be used on college applications. They feel that class standing gives unfair advantage to students from inferior schools. In other words, a valedictorian from a poor school should not have an artificially inflated advantage over any of the first fifty students in a class of 1000 at Jonah's much more competitive school.

Back to Jonah and how he got whaled on by the high school adminstration.

If I had caught Jonah, I would have taken his computer and had a member of security drive him home immediately.

In one week he would have to bring his parents back to school with him. At that time he would appear in front of the administrators to present an essay on what he thought should be the consequences of his behavior. He should also provide recommendations for changes to the system to keep students likehimself from accessing unauthorized areas on the computer. Finally I would also have him write to the college he plans to attend with an accounting of his behavior.

I would also inform the student body and their parents that a student had been caught looking at ACT scores and class rankings. And remind everyone that there are consequences for this behavior.

I have the feeling that in Jonah's case, the consequences for looking at his class ranking and comparing ACT scores may not be specificially outlined in school policy.

Here's what seems to have happened so far according to newspaper reports and students I have talked to:

Jonah was put on suspension immediately. He has had to take his courses from home for the last three months. He was not allowed to go to prom. He will not be permitted to attend graduation. And the local police, at the behest of the school, have arraigned him for a misdemeanor computer crime.

Kids caught with illegal substances with intent to sell receive much less harsh treatment. 

This whole episode is a lesson in overkill.

I think part of the problem is something troubling in high school adminstrators. They wield a unique kind of power that they are loathe to relinquish to parents, teachers, and especially students.

What they really hate more than anything is when you can outsmart them. I tried to work with the adminstrators in charge of the seniors at Jonah's school, asking permission to videotape interviews with their supervision, but they finally said, no, we just don't want to deal with this.

So, we stopped asking permission and decided just to do what we planned and apologize later. We got the job done and never had to apologize to anyone.

I bet Jonah tried to find out his class ranking by asking what it was. I am sure he wanted to know where he stood vis a vis his ACT scores against the other kids in his class. Why shouldn't he have that right. It's the main reason kids work so hard in high school.

But I'm sure he was turned down with each request. Instead of trying to find a solution that would work for both sides, the hammer just came down on the nail.

It's not Jonah's job to negotiate for a solution. It behooves the school to find an answer that is satisfactory for both parties. But pulling rank is so much easier.

So Jonah took matters into his own hands to find out for himself. [I don't know ifhe really did this, but I could understand if he did.]

Here's where another problem lies: Jonah made the administrators look like fools. Some kid cracked their code and made it look easy. 

Middle managment bureaucrats of any stripe get really pissy when you usurp their power or they lose face

Yes, they caught him redhanded. But what exactly did he do?
Read something about himself? O-o-o-o. He didn't access social security numbers or change his grades.  There was no criminal intent. Yes rules were broken. No real crime was committed.

What this episode reveals is that the school has a very smart kid. But he's only eighteen so he's also an idiot.

Despite protests from fellow students and parents who don't even know this boy, Jonah is still stuck inside the whale.

As I recall from the original story, he eventually got out.


ber144 said...

I'd like to know what school this is so that I never accidentally send any of my kids there.

Jeez, I did so many things when I was in high school in the 80s that now would have got me kicked out of twenty-two of them.  When did we get to be such an uptight society?

salemslot9 said...

I agree with you, Mrs. L

swibirun said...

Total overkill.  I agree with you, they should devote this same effort on getting drugs out of the school instead of just slaps on the wrist.  Ridiculous.


suzypwr said...

Jonah has a fine career ahead of him with the CIA.