Tech Leaders, Stop Outsourcing Your Ethics. For Your Own Good

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Karolina Długosz

Aug 23, 2022 • 7 min read
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As the clear winners of digital acceleration, tech companies need to step up their ethics, or risk a shaky future instead. Setting up an own ethics committee is a step forward.

To make the world a better place, you need to lean on technology, states one of the dogmas across the tech industry.

I dare you: try to find a tech leader not willing to brag about the good side of tech. Not that easy, right? Now try to find a leader wanting to acknowledge that tech may also amplify the negative impact on societies. Equally challenging.

It should not work that way. The tech industry came out as the clear beneficiaries of the digital acceleration. As such, companies, from large to small, should feel obliged to balance any undesired impact.

I can feel your skepticism: “Why me, why now?”.

Fair enough. As the industry, we got used to looking upon what tech giants as Google or Amazon will do first, then we used to complacently wait for political leaders to lay some rules to follow (or bypass them). We were the followers.

But as the new tech ethic is shaping, we need to start caring more. Before your usual “it-is-above-my-paygrade” kicks in, let me show you how your own ethics committee can help not only do the right things, but – let’s put it frankly – improve your scoring in the eyes of the future generation of employees.

Ethics committee, and how to set one

The easiest definition of an ethics committee would be that it is a cross-team initiative designed to act upon any ethics-related concerns. In our case, it’s fifteen people, but anything from five people will do the job.

Ethics committees are not a novelty – they already exist in other industries, though their role is mostly focused on controlling and setting guidelines for employees’ integrity.

In the tech world, it’s a fairly new concept, mostly used for keeping artificial intelligence use in check. While the AI ethical team at Google got famous in 2021 for all the wrong reasons, the concept is indeed working.

Google’s own cloud unit dropped one of the client’s ideas to use AI in helping decide whom to lend money to. IBM rejected the idea for an advanced facial recognition software, while Microsoft strongly limited the use of mimicking voices in their software.

While AI dilemmas of such nature are closer to sci-fi movies, the concept of a committee, designed as an ethical compass to support decision-makers on all levels, can be much more universal.

There are hundreds of thousands of companies working in the digital space – from consultants to vendors – that can use internal ethics committees to do the right thing, while solving more ground-to-earth issues. Let me provide you with some examples.

  • For starters, you may encounter a request to develop the mobile app that would only perpetuate unhealthy habits, eg. excessive gambling.
  • You may be invited to consult a project that is clearly not designed as environmentally friendly.
  • Or you may be approached by a company with doubtful business models, eg. making money on spreading fake news.

As a CEO, what would you do? Would you chase a potential business opportunity, since it may help you deliver the EBITDA annual goal? Or would you say pass, knowing that your employees are watching. If you’d consider the latter, here’s what we’ve learned at Netguru.

Hands-on tips on running an ethics committee

The B Corp Declaration of Interdependence claims that “through their products, practices, and profits, businesses should aspire to do no harm and benefit all.”

If we want to build a sustainable world for us and future generations, we all need to make sure that our work results in no negative impact.

Ethics committees can help a lot, given they’re set up in the right way.

Here’s a few things to remember about:

Prepare a well-defined scope of responsibilities and prerogatives for the committee and its members. The committee should be able to help on three levels:

  • Day-to-day operations (scoring the incoming ethical concerns),
  • Consulting (forming recommendations and guidelines for the decision-making body),
  • Strategy: drawing insights about interdependencies or major global ethical challenges and our role in solving them.

Safe environment. You have to ensure that your committee members are 100% honest in their assessments, so they need to feel that there are no personal consequences for raising a valid concern.

Make it clear both to the company and committee itself, that committee serves as an advisor for a decision-making body, so its task is to bring up all aspects and formulate a recommendation, not make a decision.

Be brave and set clear no-go policies. Many discussions around ethical issues will be fraught and contentious, it’s helpful to set some boundaries. For instance, you may define a “do-not-reach” policy, excluding all tobacco or non renewable energy companies from your prospect list. You may drop all gambling or direct military projects. You may choose to not engage with the biggest polluters (unless the project they’re building aims to change the dynamics).

Go beyond obvious. Try going beyond obvious categories like “pornography is bad”; the challenges of sustainable development go far beyond clear “no-go” lists – there are industries, business models and products that foster climate change. Challenge them.

Conclusion: Employees are watching you

In 2021 only we’ve had a dozen cases when our developers raised concerns about different aspects of apps we were building. Some were dismissed, some deemed as valid, resulting in ending the project and co-operation.

The point is, we’re not unique here – research proves that new generations of employees want to work with impactful companies. In other words, people don’t want to build what they don’t value. Given the choice, they won’t work for you, unless you follow the moral compass more closely. Here’s a thing: in a struggle for talent, this is when ethics actually pays off.

Photo of Karolina Długosz

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Karolina Długosz

Sustainability Lead
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