How to Write an Actionable and Sustainable Code of Ethics for Your Business
By Cennydd Bowles, Instructor of ProThink Learning online course The Impact of Ethics in Innovation and Technology
After a year of worldwide Covid-related changes, it is abundantly clear that the old way of doing things no longer works. We have had, and must continue, to reimagine every aspect of our lives, from how we gather to how we feed ourselves. On a large scale, industries are faced with an ethical reckoning: What ethical choices have industries made that got us to where we are today; What should be done differently moving forward?
The Secret to Ethical Industry: Core Values
It can be easier and more productive to codify ethics within individual companies, particularly if we can piggyback on existing policies. Core values — the list of a company’s moral stances and community commitments — are a widespread and important vehicle for ethics, and usually carry senior support. Project teams can also create more localized rules, such as design principles that govern the design decisions within a particular product line or project. Strong core values and design principles taken to heart are powerful tie-breakers for ethical dilemmas: in the event of moral emergency, consult the agreed tenets for guidance. This means core values and design principles need to be specific. Some companies choose single-word values. For example, Adobe’s are: genuine, exceptional, innovative, and involved.
Reflecting on the traits and qualities of a moral life can be important, but single-word values are just too slippery for an entire company. They leave too much unspoken, meaning people can twist them for their own purposes in a debate: ‘How can you object to this tracking software? It’s innovative!’
Sentences are better. See, for example, one of Twitter’s principles:
Defend and respect the user’s voice.
This is a sound principle, although morally ambiguous: does this include defending hate speech? Compare this now to one of Ben & Jerry’s core values:
We seek and support nonviolent ways to achieve peace and justice. We believe government resources are more productively used in meeting human needs than in building and maintaining weapons systems.
This is highly specific and even political. It may even air on the side of being too specific — it’s hard to truly live by core values unless you can remember them — but it leaves no doubt about the type of company Ben & Jerry’s want to be.
According to researcher Jared Spool, a good design principle is reversible. If you can flip the meaning and end up with a valid principle for a different team or time, you’re being specific. ‘Make it easy for users’ is a platitude, not a design principle; the opposite would be absurd. The reversibility test doesn’t fit core values quite so well. Sometimes it’s helpful to explicitly support something that should be morally obvious — ‘We care about the planet’, for instance — but if in doubt, be specific.
The Secret to Ethical Industry: Team Diversity
Core values and design principles bolster a company’s ethical infrastructure, as does team diversity. Homogenous teams tend to focus on the potential upsides of their work for people like them and are blind to the problems they could inflict on a wider audience. The same divisions that pervade today’s world are seen and amplified in today’s tech industry.
“If you live near a Whole Foods, if no one in your family serves in the military, if you’re paid by the year, not the hour, if most people you know finished college, if no one you know uses meth, if you married once and remain married, if you’re not one of 65 million Americans with a criminal record — if any or all of these things describe you, then accept the possibility that actually, you may not know what’s going on and you may be part of the problem.”
Diversity and inclusion professionals often describe two dimensions to diversity: inherent diversity and acquired diversity. Inherent diversity refers to a group’s innate traits, such as sex, orientation, and ethnic background, while acquired diversity refers to perspectives people have earned through experience, such as socioeconomic status and educational background. Both types of diversity can act as an early warning system for ethics. A team with broad inherent diversity will offer different perspectives and values, while people who are open to new experiences find it easier to exercise moral imagination. And while we should recognize the role of privilege, actively absorbing new experiences typically strengthens one’s ethical faculties.
“Fortunately, our powers of imagination can be increased. Seeking out news, books, films and other sources of stories about the human condition can help us to better envision the lives of others, even those in very different circumstances from our own.”
Simply befriending and learning from people unlike ourselves helps in building mutual understanding, resulting in a sort of secondhand acquired diversity. The quest for diversity suggests we should also embrace interdisciplinarity. Slowly, the tech industry is learning that people from non-technical backgrounds, such as politics, art, and anthropology, can bring huge value, not just in terms of different professional perspectives, but in much needed acquired diversity. Long may the trend continue.