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How to make ethics top of mind at your company

July 14, 2020
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America is re-evaluating the goal of business

When it comes to business, America is having a crisis of conscience. 

On the one hand, people recognize business’ immense service to society: businesses create useful things out of otherwise unusable materials; they spur economic growth and technological innovation far beyond their immediate scope; and they create jobs for people who would otherwise be unemployed.

On the other hand, the business world can have a sinister side: profit-seeking often trumps social good; shareholder interests can take precedence over employee interests (and even customer interests); and left unchecked, some businesses will even take risks that can upend our political and financial systems.

The pandemic has thrown the world into high relief, and these concepts have been laid bare for captive audiences with little else to do but contemplate them. As a result, business leaders and the general public alike are re-evaluating what business in the post-pandemic world can, and should, look like.

We recently sat down with Will Griffin, Chief Ethics Officer at leading AI firm Hypergiant as part of Terminal’s AMA series on remote work, to unpack the topic of business ethics and to understand where ethics and innovation intersect, both during the pandemic and beyond.

Here’s what we found out.

If you’re in business, know your ethics history

According to Griffin, incorporating ethics into business starts with understanding how our economy today fits into the larger historical context of ethical thinking.

For one, the idea of business ethics is nothing new. Plato analyzed commerce’s impact on social good almost 2,500 years ago, and Thomas Aquinas wrote extensively on the topic in medieval Europe a millennium and a half later. 

But it wasn’t until the Enlightenment that ethics were incorporated into business on a more practical level.

“Descartes, the famous philosopher and doctor, was central in incorporating ethics into medicine in the 1600s,” says Griffin. “And over the next two hundred years, the same ethical principles were applied to the legal system. So the precedent has been around for a long, long time in many sectors.” 

Ethics got a head start in these fields, which may partially explain why medical malpractice and attorney misconduct are particularly unacceptable.

But the tradition of ethics has not been applied equally across other business disciplines throughout history, Griffin points out, and pockets of resistance continue to hold out today. 

“The tech sector is a great example of this,” he says. “If you look at the origins of Silicon Valley, you’ll see it’s built on an anti-establishment ethos. Silicon Valley was born out of the revolutionary spirit of the Bay Area in the ‘60s, when engineers were rebelling against technology companies like IBM as symbols of the establishment. Somewhere along the way though, going against the grain has almost become a goal in itself.” 

Griffin argues that mantras like “Move fast, break things” and “Ask for forgiveness, not permission” are emblematic of an industry that has over-indexed on rebelliousness, crossing a red line into unruliness. As a result, the entire culture of entrepreneurship has coalesced around bold action, disruption, and value creation, often in a disregard for ethical principles. 

  • Key takeaway: In many ways, the tech industry has over-indexed on its “move fast, break things” ethos. Ethical decision-making can provide a practical framework for understanding the impact that breaking things has on society as a whole. 

Good ethics are good for business

“Fundamentally, the concepts of ethics and innovation are not at odds, however,” Griffin says. “Really, they’re quite complementary.” 

One reason that the business sphere often paints ethics and innovation as opposites may come down to misinterpreting ethics, either intentionally or through honest confusion.

“When most people think of business ethics, they usually think of compliance,” Griffin says. “And since compliance is regulatory in nature, people associate ethics with checklists, red tape, and people telling you no. But true business ethics goes much, much deeper than just running something past your legal team.”

Instead, business ethics is about imbuing ethical principles into every decision, from the ideation phase all the way through to execution. 

And according to Griffin, the process fosters creativity in unexpected ways.

“At Hypergiant, we’ve found that ethical reasoning helps us be more creative,” Griffin says. “Instead of just thinking about a single RFP or a particular client, it allows us to imagine a broader range of stakeholders. And we found that when we imagine a broader range of stakeholders, it makes us more creative. It allows us to come up with more solutions.”

As a result, companies that don’t actively encourage ethical thinking are likely limiting their own creative potential.

  • Key takeaway: Ethics runs deeper than just compliance. It’s a mindset that informs every decision made at your org, at every managerial level. And it’s not just to cover your bases; it also spurs creativity in unexpected ways.

Employing TOME, or “Top-of-Mind Ethics”

Ethical decision-making may sound abstract, but Hypergiant has rolled out a practical framework for employees to apply ethics in their day-to-day decisions. They call it TOME, short for “Top-of-Mind Ethics.”

“Every company has an elevator pitch to sum up their product-market fit,” Griffin explains. “Your whole company can recite it, and it guides decision-making in every department and at every level of seniority.” 

“But how many companies have an elevator pitch for their ethics? You can’t expect people to be on the same page about ethics without a readily accessible framework. That’s why we invented TOME — so that ethics are always top of mind.”

TOME is based on Immanuel Kant’s deontological moral philosophy, a cornerstone of Enlightenment thought. In layman’s terms, deontology says that actions should be based on whether an action itself is right or wrong, rather than based on the consequences of the action. 

“The reason why we chose this approach is because it underscores your duty to the world irrespective of what other people are doing,” Griffin says. “It helps you evaluate what is ethical independent of what else is going on in your industry.”

Kant was very prescriptive in his deontological framework, which has made it particularly useful to apply in everyday scenarios. At Hypergiant, it’s a three-step process:

  • Step 1. Evaluate goodwill by asking, “Is there positive intent for this use case?”
  • Step 2. Evaluate the categorical imperative by asking, “If everybody in our company, and every company in our industry, and every industry in the world, incorporated this decision into their operations, what would the world look like? Is this world desirable?” 
  • Step 3. Evaluate humanity by asking, “Are people being used as a means to an end? Or is this technology being used for the benefit of people in society?”

By rolling out the TOME framework, everyone at Hypergiant has a practical guide for evaluating the ethical side of their decisions. And true to its name, TOME has kept ethics at Hypergiant top of mind.

  • Key takeaway: Employees need a practical framework for employing ethical thinking. Hypergiant has rolled out TOME — short for “Top-of-Mind Ethics” — a simple three-step process for evaluating the ethical implications of a decision, now matter how big or small.

A lack of ethics will blow up the world

Money may make the world go round, but ethics keeps it from spinning out of control. And Griffin says that the federal government is especially poised to ensure this, though not through tactics like regulation and legislation.

“Policymakers won’t be able to regulate tech for the same reason they weren’t able to regulate the mortgage-backed derivatives that caused the Great Recession,” Griffin says. “The tech industry is a giant arms race between all of the players to push tech further and further, and policymakers are never going to be able to keep up. The same thing is going to happen in tech eventually. Tech companies will find a way to blow themselves up.”

That’s why Griffin believes the government’s best bet isn’t in legislation or regulation; rather, it’s to use its own purchasing power to shape ethical outcomes.

“History has proven this works. In 1948, President Truman signed an executive order that effectively established racial integration in huge sectors of the economy, and he did it in a very interesting way,” Griffin says. “His executive order said that the US military and the Department of Defense would only work with contractors that had an integrated workforce. Basically, if you’re a contractor, and you choose racial segregation, you’ll lose access to millions of dollars in contracts. This was a full sixteen years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and arguably just as effective.”

Governments can do the same thing when it comes to ethics in tech by setting the terms of what they deem ethically acceptable. After all, the Department of Defense is one of the world’s biggest purchasers of AI technology. 

“The federal government has enormous purchasing power,” Griffin says, “and they can use that power to create a more ethical world through economic forces.”

  • Key takeaway: The government’s role in establishing ethical outcomes will have to go beyond legislation and regulation. The government can use its enormous purchasing power as leverage to establish norms in the tech sector.

Business ethics today have special importance

Long-standing questions around ethical business practices won’t be answered overnight, but the historic moment presented by COVID-19 may provide an impetus for creating lasting change.

Rulebooks are being re-written in real time, and business decisions are having especially long-lasting impacts during the pandemic, which means business leaders have even more power than usual to effect change.

This will entail cultural and philosophical shifts in how companies operate, and Griffin reminds us that there is little downside to these shifts if done properly.

“I can guarantee you that if you use the TOME framework, at 99% percent of companies, you’ll be better prepared to use ethical reasoning than your general counsel or your chief compliance officer,” Griffin says. “It’s a tool to encourage innovation because it also spurs your creativity as you ethically reason a broad range of stakeholders.”

“Your business will always present you with problems that need solving,” he adds. “Ethical reasoning is an indispensable tool for solving them.”

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