Another day, another open letter criticizing a tech giant’s ethics. Medium has published a piece by an anonymous Amazon employee entitled “I’m an Amazon employee. My company should not sell facial recognition tech to police”, which after going viral has been backed by other workers at Amazon and to which the company has yet to respond.
As well as calling on Amazon not to sell facial recognition technology to the police, the letter also demands that the company part company with Palantir, the shadowy outfit cofounded by Peter Thiel. Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos has defended Amazon’s collaboration with the Pentagon, describing technology as “dual use” and adding that management sometimes has to make “unpopular” decisions.
Nevertheless, as I’ve discussed here before, employee dissent is a growing trend, particularly in the technology sector –but even affecting the White House — creating a headache for management, which is fearful that every decision a company makes must be line with certain ethical principles and be run past the workforce before being implemented. What’s more, these are often hugely important decisions, such as Google weighing up whether designing a search engine compliant with Beijing’s censorship if it wants to return to China will improve life for people there; it now has to take into account a strong employee resistance that could not only dent its image but even prompt a brain drain. For Google, changing its mind when ethical considerations are involved is a major issue.
Should companies allow the workforce, which has traditionally been unquestioning, to now question strategic decisions? In most organizations, there is little doubt that company policy is decided upstairs and anybody who doesn’t agree is free to leave. But in sectors such as technology, where workers are often correctly considered the main asset and highly mobile, such an approach can create problems and threaten even sustainability, in addition to the reputation.
Are ethics a luxury that only a few privileged employees can afford? Or will dissent spread to traditional companies or in markets with less labor mobility? Would you consider leaving your job if your employer took decisions you disagreed with on moral grounds?
It’s time for an overall rethink about how companies are managed: not only how they treat their employees or how much information about their projects they communicate, but also how they lay out their strategies and if this is consistent with the ethical principles of all stakeholders. This would arguably be the most important overhaul of corporate social responsibility so far seen: understanding that CRS starts at home, with the workforce, rather than being simply a series of highly flexible principles that look good on the web site or the annual report. If companies don’t act on their stated principles, if they breach ethical guidelines or put profits first, from now on they could run into serious problems.
(En español, aquí)