Connect digital ethics to your corporate values
- Posted on January 21, 2020
- Estimated reading time 3 minutes
A brand promise should drive behavior
Think about the organizations you interact with. Do you shop with “the low-price leader” or go out of your way to buy “eco-friendly” products? As consumers, employees, and investors, we are increasingly seeking out companies that align with our values. Now, think about some of the biggest recent corporate scandals where a company violated a value or promise:
- VW said its goals included being “more environmentally friendly and even more customer-centric” in the year before revelations that it was cheating on emissions tests for vehicles sold as eco-friendly.
- Wells Fargo said in its 2015 annual report, “We believe the best way we can earn our customers’ business is to listen and understand their needs,” while at the same time opening fraudulent accounts for customers without their knowledge or approval.
- Boeing’s first three core values are “integrity, quality, safety,” but its safety problems with the 737 Max and the subsequent fall-out are still unfolding, as details emerge that suggest decision makers had other priorities.
This isn’t to shame these companies (there’s plenty to read elsewhere for that) but to point out that these corporate promises are empty if the organization doesn’t have policies, procedures, controls, and culture to follow through with them. And in the cases where corporate behavior directly violates a brand promise, the loss in customer loyalty hurts the company at least as much as any regulatory fines, often more.
So when it comes to your company’s digital business, everyone from your CEO to your front-line staff will likely face ethical questions, such as how to best interface with customers of different backgrounds and cultures, how to collect and process personal data, and what responsibility to accept for customers’ physical and mental health. The question is how to guide your colleagues to make good decisions.
Digital ethics need a reference point
There are already plenty of “code of ethics” resources in the tech community, with common values like “transparency,” “accountability,” and “fairness.” These may provide a good starting point, but you’ll need to shape them to your own business context and corporate values. The goal is to make a set of guiding principles that anyone in the company can use to:
- Identify which ethical issues are most relevant. What does the company care about? Education? The environment? Community support? This should guide digital ethics priorities.
- Allocate time to highlight strengths or fix weaknesses. Based on brand promises, are stakeholders expecting the company to focus on certain issues, like being a leader in privacy or correcting accessibility problems? Guiding principles steer efforts to meet these expectations.
- Follow consistent criteria when making tough decisions and trade-offs. Does the company have a stance on whether to prioritize product quality or environmental responsibility? Privacy or support for law enforcement? Captivating UX or time well spent?
Ultimately a digital ethics/governance committee will guide the most difficult of these decisions, but even they will need guiding principles, just as individuals will need them for day-to-day decisions. And as a bonus, if you’re looking for budget and buy-in for your digital ethics efforts, it’s easier to see the benefits of the investment if you show how you’re helping to build and protect brand equity.
Translating corporate values to guiding principles
What does this look like in practice? Let’s take a few common corporate values and define some example guiding principles for digital ethics. Naturally, the more specific they are, the more helpful they will be for guiding decisions (although they will likely also be more difficult to implement):
Of course, these are all just examples, and by no means comprehensive. The idea is to get a sense for how a general corporate value like “customer-first” can lead to a specific digital ethics guiding principle. To build your own, you will have to consider current systems, projects, business objectives, capabilities, and corporate values. The end results should be unique to your organization.
This is difficult, but important work, and I’m looking forward to talking about this more with you all. If you have any questions or comments about this process in the meantime, I am always glad to continue the conversation.