Can You Help With Our Ethics Policy?

Advice from The Sherwins for May 2019

Illustration by  Ryan Johnson  for Ask The Sherwins

Illustration by Ryan Johnson for Ask The Sherwins


Dear Sherwins,

Startup executive here. Our board put me in charge of writing an ethics policy for the company. They want something for the employees, maybe something we could speak about publicly, that’s separate from the one our lawyers are writing.

Our C-suite had a lot of opinions about “doing good” early on, and everyone agreed that I needed to talk to some of our employees about it. I asked some teams to share their thoughts about ethics with me and it didn’t go well. Turns out, we’ve got some people who get mad if you ask them about ethics. It sounds mean to say this but, even though a lot of people talked about wanting to do the right thing, none of those meetings were useful. A few people even cried. It feels like people want villains and heroes, while I just want to get a real policy in place. Please give me a plan, because this whole exercise feels pointless.

T in New York

Ethics is tough, friend. Get a helmet.

We’re designers, so we’re going to ask you to do what a designer would do: reframe the problem.

The two of us are known for being clear-eyed about about certain, shall we say, emotional topics, and ethics is one of them. A lot of our job is listening to teams and helping everyone move forward in a professional context, while still giving everyone the space to have emotional responses. We approach ethics in the workplace in the same way.

One of the reasons ethics is tough, and why you’re stuck where you are, is because of how people usually talk about it. It’s precisely the emotional component of ethics that gets people fired up, the part where we ask each other to consider the impact of our professional behavior. And it should. Even if it were just on the job, it would be weird if we had no preference whatsoever in how we spent our time, our effort, and our money.

Ethics is about the behaviors that a community has determined are or aren’t acceptable. (And before we get much further on this, we’re talking applied ethics in terms of business here, not Hobbes vs. Comte.) When we talk about ethics, it’s about two steps from there to acceptable and good, because things that align with our ethics are often described as beneficial/good/right/awesome. But those are steps in the wrong direction. Good and ethical aren’t the same thing. It’s not as catchy, but it would be better to think of ethical as “being behaviorally aligned with what’s okay with people in your field”. It’s why the community called “Congress” has a Congressional Ethics Committee and not a Congressional Good and Right Committee, and why the community called “lawyers” have boards of ethics and not boards of morals. There’s language about violating ethics, not wronging them.

However, if you listen to how people talk about ethics… well, we’re not sure about where you are, but over here in Design Land, the current call to be “more ethical” is deafening. That’s not particularly helpful, and since “ethical” and “doing good” are being used more and more interchangeably, it also shuts down any conversation. It’s a disingenuous representation of what ethics is and what it does, but who can argue with do-good rhetoric? We don’t know anyone who’s on Team Unethical.

Your company does not need an ethics policy so y’all can feel warm and fuzzy about your choices, or so that you can stand in judgement of your competitors. You need an ethics policy so everyone understands what’s currently acceptable and what isn’t, and frame any business decisions accordingly.

The things that are acceptable at one company aren’t always acceptable at another. It doesn’t necessarily make one right and one wrong. Note: We’re absolutely not making a “good people on both sides” argument here. But say, you’ve got two design firms. One does work on spec for their bids and the other doesn’t match retirement withholdings. Or two product startups where one offers a higher starting salary and no stock options, and the other offers a lower salary with stock options to make up the difference. Think about two marketing agencies: one won’t work with tobacco companies but does work with a vaping client because it’s healthier than cigarettes, while the other prides itself on its accessibility advocacy but has international vendors that choose not to meet U.S. standards. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Who is the hero and who is the villain?

Ethics is not a matter of heroes and villains. It’s a matter of whether or not it’s Tuesday.

The concept of Tuesday, the day of the week, has a history we can trace and explore in order to see how people have thought about and tracked their time. Now, it’s arguable that not everyone got a vote when it finally came time for us all to decide on whether or not to do the whole Tuesday thing. (In fact, wouldn’t that be wild to argue, Was Tuesday an ethical decision? Maybe in another column.) But the point we’re making is that Tuesday has a framework. The decision grew and changed over time, and there were a bunch of different ways that those decisions were communicated to the members of the community. Some of those decisions were more ethical, or aligned with a communal understanding of acceptability, than others.

And lest you think that Tuesday isn’t really a good example for an ethics lesson, consider that the impact of Tuesday, as a framing aspect within the structure of days and weeks, is so great that all of the decisions we currently make about time are influenced by it.

If you don’t adhere to the concept of Tuesday, there are consequences, and that’s a feature of applied ethics. There’s a consequence to not following the behavior, some way that your participation in that community is limited because of your violation. Sure, if you don’t do Tuesday, there’s no Taco Tuesday for you. But if you didn’t do Tuesday you also wouldn’t do business contracts of any kind, which rely on each party having a shared understanding of the passage of time. Matter of fact, it would be difficult to do anything that relies on the system by which most people speak about time: credit cards, voting, holidays, or bingeing Netflix.

And that’s what you need, T, for your company’s policy. Your company needs a way of placing a decision that needs to be made, about which behavior to do, against an ethical framework. You need Tuesday.

If people don’t know how decisions are made and how those decisions can be traced back to what’s acceptable from an ethical perspective, it’s difficult for the company to be perceived as acting in an ethical manner, regardless of the type of work they do or benefit they create. If your product leans toward good but your internal functioning leans toward bad, or vice versa, where are you at?

Asking you to reframe the problem is all well and good, but you should also re-do those team discussions. In our book Turning People into Teams, we have some different ways that teams can explore their priorities for making decisions. You could use any of them for building this policy. But when you meet with others, try narrowing the conversation. Be specific about your terms and what you’re looking for. Without specificity, you’re just asking for more angry.

Here are three things to look at:

1. What types of decisions do you make?

A robust policy will include criteria that speak to the types of ethical decisions your company makes. Ask people about a recent ethical question their department had to consider, and the criteria by which they made that decision. Ideally, the ethical picture of a company has space for every department's priorities, and you can best understand these priorities through the criteria people use to make decisions.

Talking about recent decisions and criteria, rather than hypotheticals and ideal worlds, also prevents the discussion from being reduced to this department saying “we choose people over profits” and this other department saying “without profit, there are no people to choose”. It’ll also give you a better understanding of what types of things people label as ethical considerations, because every company/community is different. Lawyers and doctors don’t have to make the same decisions, and their ethics reflect that. These criteria shouldn’t just speak to external decisions about clients, users, and projects; they should also apply to internal decisions about how your company functions. Oh, and don’t forget your vendors. Really.

2. What are your indicators?

If one of your criteria is “must demonstrate significant positive community impact”, what does that impact look like and for whom? Does that positive impact need to be the same for all individuals? How long is that timeframe? Some indicators may be internal, some might not. Consider what compromises or tradeoffs you’re willing to make when other criteria become more pressing, because that’s going to happen. The market will shift, your employees will change, products and features sunset all the time.

Indicators are tough for some; be open with people about that. Even talking about putting numbers on qualitative things like engagement and morale can imply a callous ends versus means way of looking at the business. But you can’t ignore them. Balancing profit with doing right both by your users and your employees is difficult. If you don’t believe us, ask a game developer. Or a teacher. Or someone at a pharmaceutical company. If you look below the surface, a lot of industries are just non-stop Trolley Problems.

3. How will it change?

If the idea of Tuesday feels a little abstract for you, consider the Hippocratic Oath. It’s one of humanity’s first ethical frameworks. The language in the oath has been reframed and updated hundreds of times—originally, you weren’t supposed to cut people with a knife—and even for doctors who don’t take it, the oath has had an undeniable impact on the medical profession and our perception of it. If you want to publicize your ethics policy, it’s with the Hippocratic Oath that you’ll find the thing that will separate how your company approaches ethics from every other company that just screenprints some catchphrase on a hoodie and calls it a day.

Change is constant. Ethical behavior—what the company collectively deems appropriate when considering intent, goals, and impact—will and must change. We say collectively, because when we see headlines in the news that start with “Google announced” or “Facebook’s policy” or “Microsoft chose” we can be lulled into thinking these companies are singular, acting as individuals, the same way we skip to right and wrong when we talk about ethics.

But decisions aren’t made by The Google. Decisions are made by a bunch of people in a room in a building at Google. It’s an important difference. Our concept of fairness is directly related to how we feel about our ability to participate in the ethical framing of our community, whether we align ourselves with it or speak against it. You need a way for your employees—the excited ones, the angry ones, the crying ones, from the rank and file all the way up to your senior executives—to regularly examine decisions being made on their behalf, with an accessible way for things to be changed if the community deems it is necessary. Without this, your company has no place speaking about ethics, and it never will.

You have no small task ahead of you, T. This is valuable work. As time goes by, human beings learn different ways to understand and communicate the impact of our behaviors on others, and there’s great pride to be taken in documenting that. That’s really what your ethics policy is, whether you call it a code or a treatise or just a plain-old approach: it’s a living history of your company’s growth as a community. It’s a record of who your company is and who you strive to be, a way of reflecting on your place in the world.

But perhaps the most important part of it is this: an ethics policy is a place where every employee can see the relevance of the time and effort they put into their work, every time they make a decision.

On the one hand, maybe it’s too much to ask for an entire worldview in a few typed pages. But on the other hand, there’s Tuesday. We’ll leave you with that.

The Sherwins

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Send questions to questions (at) askthesherwins (daht) com. All questions become the property of Ask The Sherwins, LLC and may be edited. Our advice shouldn't be construed as a replacement for the appropriate legal or professional counsel. This advice will be around until May 31, 2019, as long as you adhere to the concept of time.