To build responsibly, tech needs to do more than just hire chief ethics officers

In the last couple of years, we’ve seen new teams in tech companies emerge that focus on responsible innovation, digital well-being, AI ethics or humane use. Whatever their titles, these individuals are given the task of “leading” ethics at their companies. Whether they’ve been created because of employee pressure, endless negative headlines or the late-flowering realization that considering your company’s impact on society is probably quite important, we should welcome these roles. After all, it’s clear current leaders have struggled to do the right thing, and this work needs dedication and expertise.

But we need to be cautious. The existence of roles like Salesforce’s chief ethics and humane use officer or Facebook’s director of responsible innovation can create the appearance of checking a box that they’ve addressed responsible tech, or the perception that responsibility for ethics is owned by solely them. And that would be a mistake.

After all, as Alix Dunn, the founder of Computer Says Maybe says, “Ethics is a cross-functional challenge. We wouldn’t expect a company to set up a finance department, then tell the rest of the organization, ‘No need to worry about money!’”

Older readers lived through the time when we were, or knew, the only “digital” or “online” person in the company. Our goal was to help others understand how the world was shifting and make sure our companies and partners did the same. We needed them to see that the internet wasn’t a separate thing or a lesser tool, but the lens through which we would engage in many interactions, for better or worse. We knew we’d succeeded when others became digital champions, too.

Just like the early days of digital, ethics can seem complex and remote. Remember thinking, “The internet will never be big enough to disrupt my industry? It can be tempting to assume you need a Ph.D. to debate complex topics like algorithmic bias or exclusion, especially as many of those chief ethics officers have those deep credentials and expertise. Even though tech fancies itself as an industry that welcomes new types of talent and thinking, credentialism is more part of the industry culture than we think – or admit. (If you’re questioning that, just think about how popular it is to put ex-employers in your Twitter biography.)

Unless you work on ethics full time or you’re a product VP, it’s easy to feel that you have no say or no role in your company’s commitment to social responsibility, especially if you’re underrepresented at your company or speaking up puts you at risk.

Ethical leaders play a powerful central role in coordinating, setting standards and creating incentives, but they wouldn’t want to be the only ones to own this work, either. Responsibility’s a muscle we build and practice. Doing the right thing isn’t a one-off action, but a commitment to values that inform day-to-day behaviors and decisions.

So we need to create structures that ensure company values are embedded in roles across the board. This could include cementing ethical goals in core company and team OKRs to incentivize each contribution, or ensuring values are centered in job specs and hiring processes. Internal trainings that build knowledge and resilience can help, alongside mechanisms to connect the dots between product and business decisions and the implications those decisions have for individual users and our broader society. Space needs to exist for nuanced conversation and critique that doesn’t require a Ph.D. or “ethics” title but demands an open mind and the ability to listen (our recently released Ethical Explorer is a free tool to help navigate topics like data control or exclusion).

Increasingly, we should see chief ethics officers as champions and educators; just like those early digital leaders, their core function should be to get their teammates bought into this new world. This, in turn, helps workers hold their responsible tech leaders to account in an era of ethics washing.

Together, we come into our power when we ask questions, speak up, demand more and build better. The builders, questioners, makers and ethical leaders coming up in technology firms now will help us to reshape the industry for the better and create the products we deserve.