Chief Ethics Officers: Should You Hire One and With What Responsibilities?

In a recent New York Times piece, Kara Swisher asks the question of whether tech firms should hire chief ethics officers. Here are some thoughts of my own.

ethics, officer, and executive.

In short, I’m not particularly keen. “We need an exec” tends to be a (slightly facile) default position whenever someone identifies a gap in tech company capabilities. But I think the best approach is rather more interwoven. A chief ethics officer would be too distanced from product and design orgs, where most ethical decisions are made; their duties would come into conflict with those of the CFO, who is already on the hook for financial ethics; and the seniority of the role would mean this person would be seen as an ethical arbiter, an oracle who passes ethical judgment. This is, in my opinion, a failure state for ethics. Loading ethical responsibility onto a sole enlightened executive doesn’t scale, and it reduces the chance of genuine ethical discourse within companies by individualizing the problem.

Better to appoint senior practitioners — product ethicists, design ethicists — and place them at the apex of decisions, ideally within those respective orgs. Granted, these folks may need someone above to organize, evangelize, and provide air cover. So a chief ethics officer might be useful if hired simultaneously with or just after some IC-level ethical roles. For this to work, this person should be given:

· a bit of budget and/or headcount to bring in experts, particularly from academia;

· serious involvement in (or even responsibility for) updating core company values;

· some authority, comparable with perhaps a VP, although perhaps not full veto power;

· and the flexibility to point outward as well as inward. Tech firms will only succeed at this ethics thing if they share ideas and progress. I’ve just finished a long US tour talking ethics with a range of tech companies (Microsoft, Facebook, Hulu, Dropbox, Fitbit, IBM): one glaring gap is knowledge sharing and external community-of-practice building, which would make progress quicker and smoother.

team, decisions, and culture.

A successful chief ethics officer would equip teams to make their own decisions, not bestow judgment from above. The best approach is a mix of theory, process, and technique to (per Cameron Tonkinwise) make ethics an ethos, not just a figurehead appointment.

Also, be sure to tread lightly when considering an ethics committee. Many tech leaders are hostile to structures like this, seeing them as bureaucratic talking-shops that will obstruct the company’s lightweight, agile culture. If there is support for a committee, think carefully about its structure and powers. While a committee should probably contain specialist ethicists, it should ideally represent the wider organization, so consider inviting engineers, product managers, designers, researchers, and customer service staff. And consider the committee’s powers: can it veto decisions, making it like an Institutional Review Board (IRB), or is it purely advisory?

With time and persistence, concrete ethical changes will at last steer culture in the right direction. People who don’t share the company’s values will drift away, replaced by staff who are attracted by the company’s reputation. And outside help might be a factor you find helps kick-start this change into action.

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