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.

Cennydd Bowles