On making ethical choices


In March we had a long internal (over 100 posts in Yammer) discussion about ethics in our customer work. The question revolved mainly around whether there are organizations in this world that we should not work with and who decides which organization is ethical or not.

I’m sure that the questions and comments we had are something that many companies are thinking about: corporate responsibility and social impact are topics of active discussion at the moment. Therefore, I’m hoping that telling what we talked about could start similar discussions in other companies as well.

This summary is naturally my view of the discussion and can have some interpretations that some people do not agree with. For that reason, there is the comment function below ;) Nevertheless, I hope I do a justice to all the good comments and questions posed by my colleagues.

Our discussion was launched by a hypothetical question: should we do work for a weapons manufacturer or not. Quickly we learned that opinions about the topic were divided into three: yes, no, and the silent majority. Nevertheless, it became also obvious that this is not a black and white question. There are more questions to be asked.

First of all, should we judge other companies at all? Who are we to make judgment on whether some activity is more ethical than another? On the other hand, we want our people to address our customers’ problems and challenges with passion and care. If a Futurice worker finds the project or the customer in conflict with his/her personal values, then that person cannot honestly be passionate about the project.

Therefore, we also talked whether personal ethics should affect our work at all. Should we care what other companies do? Isn’t it enough that an organization is a legitimate organization not breaking the law, why should we problematize it further? And what if the organization is in the grey area of ethics but the project is not? Or what if the problematic organization wants to improve the ways in which it is working? It is really hard to draw any policies beforehand.

A point was made that our ethics should simply be that we keep promises, we aim to do our best, and we are the nicest guys and gals in the business. Although these are good ethical guidelines, they sweep any issues with the customer’s business under the carpet. The three principles can be understood so that we are not concerned on what line of business the company is in, we just keep our promises and do our best (“we just build your web services, we do not care how you make your money”). On the other hand, if we want to be the nicest people in IT, then we need to look closer on what we mean by “nice”. Do the nicest guys and gals work together with companies that can be seen ethically problematic?

If we accept that ethics should play a role in the work we do, the next question is whose ethics should we adhere to? In other words, who decides that a potential project or a customer is ethical or not? If we draw a company wide policy, we easily make the guidelines either too broad (no help in practice) or too narrow (too strict in practice). Also, a company policy dictating ethics is not within the spirit of Futurice: we let people make the decisions themselves (and carry the responsibilities as well). However, without any company-wide guidelines, making decisions all alone is difficult, especially ethical decisions.

The question of where to draw the line between unethical and ethical projects (or organizations) can be seen as a matter of responsibility. If the company creates a policy that people can follow, then individuals potentially transfer the moral responsibility to the faceless policy. If, on the other hand, every individual has to make a personal decision, then that person carries the responsibility. It is of course much easier to have a company policy to rely on (and blame) than to take personal responsibility. And one thing we seemed to agree on was that coming up with a company policy on what is right or wrong is not the best way to proceed.

We also agreed that having different opinions and respecting them is a value in itself. In a company of 150 people it is quite natural that people have varying opinions on how should ethics be taken into account in our project work. Forcing a company policy seems, also in this sense, not to be the best solution because it would not represent everyone.

Nevertheless, no strong opposition was made towards the rule that every Futurice employee has the right to refuse a project based on their personal ethics. It was also noted that people do not take refusing projects lightly, and therefore, there is very little risk that the right to refuse is used on light grounds. Our bread and butter are the customer projects so refusing to work in one is a big decision and often against the majority of opinions.

But is this a practical problem at Futurice? Do people constantly refuse projects on ethical grounds? I know of one case during my 1+ years in the company. Based on my experience I would guess that people very seldom refuse projects on ethical grounds (perhaps, because we seldom work with companies that are ethically problematic). But I think having the right to refuse is more of a principle than an answer to an existing problem. Having the right to refuse on ethical grounds communicates to everyone that we as a group of people (i.e., Futurice) respect your ethical views and that you have the power to decide (and you therefore carry the responsibility).

Are we ‘done’ now that we have a principle? No way. As you can read from above, many questions were unanswered, and perhaps will remain so. What we did achieve is that we have had this discussion, and perhaps we can now take a step towards practical solutions. For example, further work on guidelines to help people to make decisions. But also ideas of how to further educate us on what are the ethical questions involved. For example, the ethical discussion nicely underlines the fact that it is very unclear what is the responsibility of an engineer or a designer in a complex network of technologies, organizations and users. The difficulty in clarifying what is ethical is the same difficulty as in clarifying the complex systems that make up our global information society. When we create a mobile application, it is technically and organizationally integrated with infrastructures and ecosystems that have parts we might find ethically questionable.

So I’m hoping that we as designers, developers, and managers accept that our work is connected to ethical questions, whether we acknowledge it or not. The big question that we should tackle is what should we do about it. And what we learned through our internal discussion was that there is no quick and easy solution. Any suggestions?