Ethical lapses cost companies millions — an ethical workforce can help

3D rendering of a self-driving car
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A 3D rendering of a self-driving car in the street. New technologies have thrust ethical questions into the spotlight, and tech companies will need to carefully consider the implications of their work.

Can organizations address issues of ethics to avoid internal discord and financial penalties and ultimately become magnets for those who want to join a workforce attuned to such matters? Questions around ethics and technological development have grown more important — and the ramifications of not answering them more obviously present — with the accelerating pace of innovation.

Ethical thought experiments such as "Should I drive myself off the side of the road or collide with another vehicle when no other option is available?" have become concrete in the world of autonomous and intelligent systems such as self-driving automobiles. When whole professional practices, passed-down skills, ways of life and even communities can be rendered obsolete by the rise of robotics and related systems, who is responsible for the disruption? This is not a speculative discussion. Such questions are no longer in the realm of what should we do; they are about what must we do, because the scenarios, technologies and choices they involve already have arrived.

The companies bringing our most breathtaking technology innovations to the marketplace today simply cannot escape such ethical crucibles. The ways they elect to manage issues, when and how to shoulder or shrug responsibility, and whether to act in transparency or in secrecy are under scrutiny by watchers both external and internal. And the stakes are very, very high.

The costs of misbehavior

Externally, the financial impact can be tremendous. In recent years, some companies have incurred $70 billion in fines and mitigation costs as a consequence of their choices regarding ethics and technology failures.

Internally, the risks of missteps can prove to be just as severe. Organizations traditionally value those they see as their key staff: the people they can count on to lead the organization in the future. The allegiance of these key employees is often what protects a company from losing its differentiating edge. However, if a company is obviously successful and highly regarded, those employees are most highly prized by the company’s competitors. These staffers have a choice — to stay or leave — and a key consideration for them, especially those who skew younger, is whether they believe the company’s values are aligned with their own.

The ethical professional

Company leaders may be beguiled by enormous riches to pursue business opportunities that destroy their reputation — that is why companies have controls in place to assess possible reputation damage related to new opportunities. Mid-level managers chasing sales or product delivery targets may be tempted to break laws; internal whistle-blowing policies are there to catch these shortcuts before the directors and officers face jail.

Should these safeguards fail, the ethical professional is the final line of defense. However, there’s little reason to expect that such employees — outstanding individuals willing to lose a job for their morals — exist en masse. For one thing, the role does not scale. For another, very few appear willing to make such sacrifices. The ethical professional today is both needed and appreciated — but is in short supply.

Bolstering internal ethics

Technology companies would be wise to spend time managing issues of ethics. For a start, large corporations employ thousands of professionals, including engineers, accountants and lawyers, who are bound by professional codes of ethics. These professionals can form the backbone of an organization’s ethical culture, especially if their values align with the right "tone at the top" (a rejection of bullying, corruption or sexual harassment, for example).

Moreover, there is a mounting body of evidence showing that companies will benefit from investing in multidisciplinary teams. The context of technology development is so hard to map, and it is so easy to fail to anticipate the range of impacts of an innovation. The more diverse a team involved in putting a product into market, the greater the opportunity there is for any adverse or unintended consequences to be foreseen and successfully managed.

In addition, we need to beef up in-service ethics training, which can help employees anticipate the ethical challenges they likely will face over the course of their careers.

The organization that sees its goal as grabbing any business and thinking of legal and reputation consequences later is operating at great peril. With technology growing more central to the moment-to-moment living of people around the globe, issues of its ethical development and deployment have been propelled to the fore for all of us — not least of which for the companies producing those innovations that benefit humanity.

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