Can CEOs Sustain Company Ethics in a World Led by Robots?

Ethics in business are nothing new, and ethics itself has been a topic of conversation and debate for thousands of years.

However, according to Dr Caitlin McDonald, Digital Anthropologist at Leading Edge Forum, the rapid development of technology in the modern world brings with it both huge benefit as well as potential harm.

As automated decision-making systems become ever more ubiquitous across all industries, what are the key questions CEO’s need to address, now and in the future? How can organisations create a sustainable future through managing ethical concerns at every stage of development?

As it becomes more and more difficult to opt out of technologically mediated life, the ethics of how to do right with technology become more and more urgent. Organisations risk four key harms if they fail to address digital ethics:

  • Loss of customer base to more ethical service providers
  • Loss of talent to more ethical employers
  • Public harm through exacerbating systemic inequalities
  • Loss of competitive edge against unethical actors

Ethical frameworks and codes are a means for defining our expectations. There are a wealth of existing and emergent frameworks available ranging from governmental and NGO guidance at the national and international level, to private sector industry accepted practices, to principles developed in academic research settings. Turning these from ideals into ethical impacts requires an ethics of action. Whatever code of ethics you want to adopt or adapt for your organisation certainly shouldn’t run counter to generally accepted cultural norms, such as the simple adage “do unto others as you would have done unto you,” but you’ll likely need something more specific to support your business. Organisations need agreed principles of governance to set expectations, but it is in the ethics of action that your ethical code will flourish or perish.

Where do we go from here?

With so many ethical frameworks, toolkits and consulting services to choose from, what are the steps that industry leaders need to take to develop sustainable digital ethics?

  • Conduct an ethics audit. Discover the internal perceptions of ethical responsibility within your company and find out if managers and team members feel empowered to make and take ownership of ethical decisions. See if they recognize areas where their decisions have an ethical impact and determine whether parts of your organization already using ethical frameworks to guide their decision-making.
  • Decide what your company ethics are. Drafting an ethical framework must be more than an opinion survey, but it necessarily involves coming to a consensus about what the guiding principles of the group or organization must be. How do these relate to your core company values? What internal and external resources can you draw upon to create a framework that will protect your employees and customers?
  • What are your considerations for the ethics of care, the ethics of reason and the ethics of duty? Stakeholder interests can easily get obscured by layers of abstraction. My angry boss is right here; the people whose lives might be influenced by a change to the way we process data are represented by a line on a chart – or perhaps not represented at all. Ask yourself:
    • Ethics of care: whose interests require my custodianship?
    • Ethics of reason: what would a reasonable third party say in this situation?
    • Ethics of duty: who do I, or we, owe allegiance, obedience or duty to?
  • Design ethical feedback loops in your projects. Depending on the level of autonomy in the management style of your organisation, this may entail getting team members on board to build their own canvases to support a discussion-led approach, or you may evolve a more directive checklist of responsibilities.
  • Have a plan. Above all, think about what tools you have in place when ethical risks and ethical breaches are identified. You probably have a BCM plan that outlines procedures for what happens in the event of fire, floods and other calamities. Where’s your ‘ECM’ plan?

A code is not enough

Though codes have value for setting out the structures of ethical principles, they are not sufficient for putting ethics into practice. Indeed, paying too much attention to a code can lead to a mere box-ticking exercise that adheres to the letter of the code without the spirit of the code. Without a real cultural commitment to ethics these become more about the appearance of having done the process than the actual outcome of the process.

Every decision has an ethical impact. Whether your business approaches that with conscious deliberation about what kind of impact is up to you.

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