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When to hire an ethics officer

Your company has a grand plan for digital disruption (and world domination). When and how should you consider the philosophical consequences?

Brace yourselves, technologists: Ethical misconduct in the workplace is on the rise. According to the Ethics and Compliance Initiative, a community that disseminates professional best practices, "16 percent of employees experienced pressure to compromise ethical standards, a 23 percent increase since 2013. Additionally, 84 percent of these employees also observed misconduct.”

Damn. That's a whole lotta bad behavior in dire need of a rolled-up newspaper.

When people think of ethical misconduct in the workplace, they may imagine a guy getting grabby at the office holiday party. But ethical violations—in the tech space and elsewhere—also include:

Let’s sidestep the reasons why your company should behave responsibly, such as all those pesky lawsuits it otherwise may face. Or, if you prefer carrots to sticks, hiring a corporate ethicist increases customer loyalty, as people prefer to patronize an ethical business over a creepy one. Or, consider the increased employee loyalty, which reduces expensive employee turnover. I shouldn’t have to belabor the point that it’s a good thing to behave honorably.

However, if you really want your business to "do no evil," someone has to be the company conscience. You need to designate a human being to create the guidelines for what is appropriate in the workplace and what is an oh-HELL-no.

That someone is an ethics officer.

What an ethics officer does

The easiest task to point at is organizing training and awareness programs, to ensure employees understand the guidelines and consequences of corporate shenanigans. (Hint: In a worst-case scenario, it involves a perp walk.) Ethicists create policies and standards, and they craft the very best of best practices. In essence, they shape corporate culture.

Nan DeMars, workplace ethicist and author of "You've Got to Be Kidding: How to Keep Your Job and Your Integrity," says that in an ethical business, employees need to feel free to ask questions and know that their concerns are taken seriously and kept confidential. They also need to feel confident that there will be no repercussions from communicating about perceived problems. An ethicist puts these safeguards in place.

Note that "ethics" is frequently paired with its cousin "compliance." At its shiny core, ethics is about practicing honesty and treating people fairly; compliance requires that the company and its representatives adhere to the letter of the law. Importantly, ethical business reinforces work in the best interest of the company and the customer. Therefore, an ethical business reinforces compliance.

But, because the two practices are related—doing the right thing for moral reasons and to match the legislative or industry understanding of what’s right—you often see job descriptions that combine the two roles. A compliance specialist keeps up to date on compliance laws and industry regulations, plus stays in sync with security patches and the latest in hacker antics. Often, the “compliance” role gets more attention, but the motivation should be based on the philosophical stance that the high road has a better view.

In a technology company, an ethicist has to work with another layer of complexity. Ethicists in technology companies need to use their dystopian imaginations.

These ethicists need to consider what happens when technology is used in a way that may not be anticipated, and challenge the designers or business leadership to consider and respond to undesired consequences. A good ethicist brings awareness to potential issues. A better ethicist recommends preventative measures.

Such people probably have a photo posted in their office of Dr. Ian Malcom from "Jurassic Park": “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should.”

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As companies innovate, and we create new opportunities, someone has to ask the uncomfortable questions. For example, querying bulk data can lead to a breach of privacy; machine learning tools can be used to create malicious deep fakes; and the CRISPR gene editing tool, which could lead to advances in genetics and agriculture, may lead to cancer and/or the zombie apocalypse. It’s the ethicist who has to warn decision-makers about the dark dystopian future in which it all goes horribly wrong—as well as suggest options that let the company continue to make a profit.

Giving ethicists power

But to whom do the ethicists make their recommendations?

W. Michael Hoffman, executive director of the Hoffman Center of Business Ethics and the Hieken Professor of Business and Professional Ethics at Bentley University, says ethicists should report to the company's board of directors. "If the ethics and compliance officer is hired by management, their performance appraisal is done by management, and they can be fired by management. Then they are in a precarious position. Even a conflict of interest position.

"The ethics officer should be hired by the board of directors and can only be fired by the board,” says Hoffman. In particular, the ethics and compliance officer should report to the independent directors of the board, not to the managing directors. This way, the ethics officer is less likely to take fire (or get fired) if he or she identifies a work practice that is ethically improper yet profitable enough that bonus-seeking contributors are willing to turn a blind eye.

William Brendel, president and CEO of the Center for Ethical Organizations, disagrees.

Brendel believes ethicists should report to the CEO, or better yet, join the C-suite. "The C-suite sets the strategy. Ethics has to be part of the strategy,” he says. "If you're not at the table, how on earth do you know what the habit of mind is in the C-suite who hold all this power?"

Reporting to the board of directors means the ethics officer can have an eye out on the CEO, adds Brendel. “You don't want to have a relationship where the CEO is censoring himself around you."

Let it be known that a debate between ethicists is an extremely polite one.

When does your business need an ethics officer?

You might think a five-person startup doesn’t need an ethics officer. After all, a tiny company doesn’t even have a full-time accountant. Or a ping-pong table. But that doesn’t remove the corporate responsibility to consider consequences. DeMars says, "It doesn't matter if you're a little gas station. Develop a code of ethics, and post your mission statement on your website or even your wall."

As for big businesses, Brendel says "it's imperative" for them to have a dedicated ethics officer. After all, the larger the population, the greater the risk of ethical lapses.

Where’s the line? Even if you can’t afford (or keep occupied) a full-time ethics officer, medium-size businesses—say, between 100 and 300 people—would benefit from having one employee do double duty as an ethicist, Brendel says.

Weigh your options when choosing the person. Potential ethicists come from multiple fields of study, including philosophy, law, management, human resources, religion, social work, and education. Certifications, such as the Certified Compliance and Ethics Professional (CCEP), can also be acquired.

Brendel says, "If I had to choose between somebody who has a behavior organization psychology background and a lawyer, I'd choose the person who knows how to diagnose, intervene, and report back on behavioral motivation." Why? Because a lawyer can teach you what is legal and what isn't—and an ethically flexible employee might use that information to "figure out the loopholes." Their work may be technically legal but ethically iffy.

Ethicists are at their best when they understand adult learning, Brendel says. The point isn’t to provide rote rules to follow; that’s compliance. "To transform habits of mind, you have to know how to lead adults through deep critical reflection about their habits of mind when it comes to ethical decision-making,” he explains. The person for doing this, he says, “needs to know how to help people pinpoint what's problematic in their own decision-making approach, challenge it, and change it."

Oh, and as for when you should hire an ethics officer, Hoffman says the answer is right now. DeMars goes one step further: "When should you set up your ethics department? Yesterday.”

Hiring an ethics officer: Lessons for leaders

  • All companies should hire or designate someone to create guidelines for what is—and isn't—ethical behavior. What isn't? Anything from disregard for confidentiality and misuse of data to failing to address vulnerabilities and punishing whistleblowers.
  • Ethicists should be able to not only bring awareness to potential issues but recommend preventative measures. That's especially true of ethical questions related to technology advances that could have undesired consequences.
  • There's some disagreement as to whom ethicists should make their recommendations: While one expert maintains ethics officers should report to the company's board to maintain separation from the CEO, another says ethicists should join the C-suite and help set strategy.
  • Whether your company hires a full-time officer or appoints an employee to do double-duty, the time to act is now, experts say.

Related links:

The ethics of AI

The ethics of AI: Tool, partner or master?

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.