In a report out this week, entitled Social Responsibility in the Information Age, De Montfort University's Simon Rogerson says today's IT staff fall well short of expectations of professionalism compared to those in traditional professions such as a medicine and law.
"The power of information and communications technologies has increased massively, yet the sense of responsibility of the professionals working most closely with those technologies has stagnated," Rogerson says. "Classic professions have closed-membership, professional bodies that can sanction members. IT jobs don't have professional bodies with meaningful powers of sanction.
"Professionalism implies a commitment to the interests of all end-users and other stakeholders. It requires much more than delivering on time within budget - to do so could mean delivering a dangerous or malfunctioning system."
Co-author of the report, Ben Fairweather, research fellow at the university's Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility, calls for individuals to take responsibility for their actions at work as they would at home.
"Actions are often carried out that would be seen as clearly immoral if done away from the professional arena," he says. "At the most extreme, deaths are caused, or not prevented. Individuals must take responsibility for their actions."
Rogerson says IT professionals have a moral responsibility to look beyond their self-interest to how their actions affect others. They should set high standards for new recruits to follow and lead by example, share new ideas or best practice with others, and give leadership and guidance to end-users.
Codes of conduct mandated by the British Computer Society and other professional bodies set out such obligations, but although these bodies can discipline members they cannot stop them working, unlike those in traditional professions.
Rogerson's report calls on employers to build IT ethics into their training programmes and to consider appointing an internal senior champion for ethical issues.
"Ethical awareness should be part of the job specification for IT jobs," Rogerson says. "This could be tested at interview. If you cannot recruit ethically-sensitive staff, you should run ethics education sessions. These should not be just a one-off session at induction, but an approach that encourages continuous staff development and discussion of ethical issues."
The report also suggests that the IT industry should consider appointing an ethics adviser or committee to guide IT professionals.
Rogerson concludes, "IT professionals are the custodians of the greatest change technology that has ever been created. They have a huge amount of power in modern society, but with that comes a huge responsibility and obligation to do things which are acceptable, and which promote the well-being of all of us. That really is a challenge that IT professionals should take up and address."