The short answer to that question is "everything." That being said, we know you are not going to allow us to get off the hook with such a simple answer and, therefore, here is the long version that provides a brief examination of the ethical issues involved:
- Leadership Skills and Ethical Skills Are 2 Sides of the Same Coin. Leadership without any moral compass--in other words, without ethics--is leadership gone astray, a ship captain without a compass, a ship that goes wherever the wind blows. Therefore, ethical skills and leadership skills are 2 sides of the same coin.
- Ethical Issues Transcend Boundaries. Virtual Organization Management is all about learning how to lead in a virtual environment. Therefore, whether we are talking about leadership in a brick and mortar setting or in a virtual environment, we're still talking about leadership and the myriad number of ethical issues that come with it. Therefore, this is not an issue that can just be ignored or relegated to the dust bin of history because we're now operating in a virtual environment.
- Ethical Issues Are Magnified in a Virtual Environment. Ethics, for the most part, is relative to culture. Even the word "culture" is too broad a classification since you can have so many sub-cultures within a primary culture--the American culture being a prime example.
Therefore, ethical issues within just one culture can run so many levels deep and reach such levels of complexity that it would be almost impossible to develop one uniform set of ethical standards that everyone could follow, as is the case in the United States and various parts of the world.
Now add to this formula the global nature of the internet which, all of a sudden, not only allows you the capability to engage live and in real-time with one culture and all its sub-cultures, but also with all other cultures that exist on this planet.
That is mind-boggling, to say the least, and which brings us to this compound question: How in the world do we come up with a uniform set of ethical standards that everyone could follow and is that the sort of monumental task that we should even attempt to undertake? The answer is clearly “No.”
- Clash of Ethics. In addition to the impossibility of trying to manage this tangled web of ethical issues in a virtual environment, there exists instances of outright hostility and clashes between different sets of ethics. Co-existence is just not possible due to fundamental differences between purveyors of ethical values.
- Deterrent Capabilities Minimized or Non-Existent in a Virtual Environment. Furthermore, we live in a world whereby we're accustomed to being governed by rules that are pretty well laid out for us. We also understand what will happen to us when we break those rules AND get caught. We are also aware of the enforcement mechanisms in place that can serve as a deterrent to breaking the rules (e.g., visual presence, visibility, a gate, a locked door, a camera, other physical barriers, a judicial system, law enforcement, etc.). Therefore, barriers and a high degree of likelihood of getting caught become a significant deterrent to breaking the rules.
However, that being said, the internet transcends these enforcement mechanisms that previously served as a deterrent in a brick and mortar environment. For the most part, it leaves it up to each individual or group of individuals to decide which rules to follow and which rules to make up on the fly in the absence of any. "Out of sight, out of mind" and "Anything goes as long as I can get away with it" as well as "What they don't know, won't hurt them" tend to replace the so-called "ethical values" which previously existed; and what we're left with is some sort of Wild Wild West or Law of the Jungle ethics.
In light of the above postulates, trying to come up with one set of ethical values that would accommodate everyone on the internet is tantamount to a dog chasing his tail, hence an exercise in futility.
Need for Reliance on A Priori Ethics
Therefore, we need to rely on a different set of ethical values that are built into each and everyone of us regardless-and in spite-of race, nationality, ethnicity, culture, gender, religion, geography, and demographics; ethical values which are independent of rules and dictates from any particular social order: that set of ethics we call "a priori ethics."
A priori ethics is based on the premise that, deep down inside each and every single one of us, we have this inner understanding of right and wrong regardless of origin or culture. A priori ethics subscribes to only one principle, which is "Do no harm and do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Therefore, if any single action taken by you cannot pass this test, then you do not belong, nor can you be successful, in a virtual environment or virtual organization.
In conclusion, we ask each and every single one of you to appeal to your inner sense of right and wrong--instead of your acquired notions of right and wrong--as you engage in your dealings with each other and throughout the virtual organization.
That means: leave your rationalizations, prejudices, biases, your acquired notions of right and wrong, your acquired concepts of good and evil, your religion, your politics, your sexual preferences, and your customs behind before you step into the virtual environment or else it will quickly disintegrate into a chaotic and ineffective mess.
And only then will you be able to focus on accomplishing your virtual organization mission, keeping in mind the five most important pillars of a virtual organization: (i) Structure, (ii) Discipline, (iii) Communication, (iv) Security, and (v) Performance.
Related Reading Suggestions: A Global Need for Principled Geopolitical Leaders
on The New Virtual Organization World Consortium