When profits and ethics clash

Today’s workers are increasingly comfortable speaking up
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/30/2018

Don’t be evil.

Those three words, famously embedded in Google’s corporate code of conduct, still top my list of best phrases found anywhere in corporate-mission type language (admittedly a shallow field.) They’re simple, straightforward, catchy.

But evil is often interpreted through the eye of the beholder. Many of Google’s current practices could be viewed as somewhere south of good, especially when viewed through a privacy lens. That’s because Google has a staggering amount of data about individuals.

Here’s a snapshot of seven things I found that Google thinks it knows about me:

1. I’m male (check).

2. I’m 45 to 54 years old (check).

3. I’m interested in the New York Times, advertising and marketing, football, audio equipment, Canada, beaches and islands (mostly true.) But clubs and nightlife show up, as does country music (wrong).

4. It knows exactly where I live and work.

5. It knows I was at the cottage and a nearby microbrewery recently.

6. It knows every website I’ve visited, from my search this morning on “cannabis in the workplace” (to see if Canadian HR Reporter’s new page on the topic is showing up on page 1 — it is) to LinkedIn.

7. It knows I watched Jimmy Kimmel’s interview with Kanye West on the weekend, along with a Stephen Colbert sketch about Omarosa Manigault Newman.

Many Google employees take the “don’t be evil” mantra to heart. They haven’t been shy about petitioning their bosses to stop programs and behaviour that seem to fall into that category.

When news broke that Google might be developing a search engine for China that met the communist government’s approval — by blocking some websites and search terms — employees responded.

“Hundreds of employees have called on the company to provide more ‘transparency, oversight and accountability,’” according to Reuters, which saw an internal petition by the workers last month.

The petition complained that workers only found out about the rumoured Chinese ambitions through media reports.

The activism has gone even further — staff have asked Google to “create an ethics review group with rank-and-file workers, appoint ombudspeople to provide independent reviews and internally publish assessments of projects that raise substantial ethical questions,” according to Reuters.

That comes on the heels of another employee revolt at Google over the company’s involvement in the Maven Project, a U.S. military initiative where it provided assistance in analyzing “imagery used for targeting drone strikes.”

Google cancelled its involvement after internal employee protests, noted Reuters.

Amazon, Microsoft

But it’s not just Google. In June, Amazon workers penned a letter to CEO Jeff Bezos after it was revealed the company was selling its powerful facial recognition technology to police and government.

“We already know that in the midst of historic militarization of police, renewed targeting of black activists, and the growth of a federal deportation force currently engaged in human rights abuses, this will be another powerful tool for the surveillance state, and ultimately serve to harm the most marginalized,” said the letter.

It went on to point out that IBM’s systems were used in the 1940s to help Adolf Hitler.

“IBM did not take responsibility then, and by the time their role was understood, it was too late,” said the letter.

“We will not let that happen again. The time to act is now.”

Microsoft workers also let management know they weren’t happy with a US$20-million contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE):

“We believe that Microsoft must take an ethical stand, and put children and families above profit. As the people who build the technologies that Microsoft profits from, we refuse to be complicit. We are part of a growing movement, comprised of many across the industry who recognize the grave responsibility that those creating powerful technology have to ensure what they build is used for good, and not for harm.”

In a jobseekers’ market — with Canada’s unemployment rate at 5.8 per cent — employees may feel more comfortable about speaking up or walking out the door if they don’t like what they see. After all, there are 407,000 jobs in Canada that have been unfilled for at least four months, according to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

Today’s workers are increasingly comfortable speaking up when they see something that doesn’t mesh with their morals and ethics.

And in a tight labour market, this provides a real opportunity for organizations to position themselves as employers of choice and poach the top talent who not only have a moral compass, but incredible skills that can boost the bottom line.

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