My take on chief ethics officers
Kara Swisher’s NYT piece asks whether tech firms should hire chief ethics officers. Some quick thoughts of my own.
I talk about this in Future Ethics; 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 IMO a failure state for ethics. Loading ethical responsibility onto a sole enlightened exec doesn’t scale, and it reduces the chance of genuine ethical discourse within companies by individualising 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 organise, evangelise, 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
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. I have some vague thoughts about how we might address this; more later.
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.