The ethical executive is coming to a boardroom near you – City A.M.

We are undergoing a paradigm shift in our political, economic, and commercial worlds — and it’s truly stranger than fiction.

Donald Trump, Brexit, Cambridge Analytica, the weaponisation of data, deep fakes, and artificial intelligence (AI) — phenomena that would have seemed inconceivable a decade ago are now our day-to-day reality.

While some businesses are ahead of the game, many have taken too long to wake up to this brave new world. So with demographic and technological shifts subverting everything that we thought we knew, how can businesses chart a way forward?

Generation game

Start with the fundamentals: people. Millennials (born after or around 1980) and Generation Z (born after 1996) are not just entering the workforce — they’re beginning to dominate it. As such, they are increasingly influencing how we work.

Millennials, according to all the research, crave workplace satisfaction and work-life balance, but they also expect their employers to reflect their own defined set of values, especially around social and economic equality.

Meanwhile, Gen Z — completely comfortable in a mobile-first, multi-device, multi-app environment — value making a meaningful contribution to the world, and in return expect their input to be respected. They are also less tolerant of hierarchical corporate environments.

With millennials and Gen Z expected to account for over 75 per cent of the workforce by 2035, organisational culture must shift towards meeting the demands of these younger demographics.

Clearly, corporates need to get serious about addressing this paradigm shift, or they will end up with no customers — and no staff. And this message finally seems to be getting through.

In August 2019, the Business Roundtable, an organisation representing over 200 chief executives of America’s largest corporations, released a statement about their change in direction. It concluded that: “The best-run companies do more. By taking a broader, more complete view of corporate purpose, boards can focus on creating long-term value, better serving everyone — investors, employees, communities, suppliers, and customers. In the end, it’s the most promising way to build long-term value.”

The power of protest

So are corporations really becoming more “woke”? Clearly, they are — or at least, they are realising that they have no choice. 

At the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this month, one of the most globally influential members of Gen Z, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, scolded the world’s billionaires and chief executives for their role in impacting climate change. 

You only have to look at some of the straplines of participating corporations to see the impact her disapproval had. Take McKinsey, for example, which stated that it would be engaging with business executives, experts, and policymakers to discuss topics including climate change, how technology can be harnessed for social good, and the role of business leadership in the twenty-first century.

Nor is it only high-profile teenagers who are making a difference. Change is happening everywhere, on a mass scale. The employee walkouts at Google and the #DeleteUber campaigns on social media show how times are changing, finally. Employees and consumers alike are fed up with the status quo.

Technology, most notably in the form of social media hashtag campaigns, is making it easier for people to gang up against companies for not doing the “right thing”. Look at the $36bn drop in Facebook’s valuation in March 2018 — after The Guardian published its findings on how Cambridge Analytica used data on over 87m unsuspecting users taken from the social media platform for political purposes — to see the material impact that this can have on businesses.

Corporations cannot afford to ignore this. And as a result, we’ve seen some of the world’s largest technology companies try to address this tectonic shift by launching new initiatives, internal teams, and external advisory boards to demonstrate their willingness to change.

Microsoft — long considered a “bad guy” ever since its 2001 Department of Justice antitrust judgment — launched an “AI for Accessibility” programme in 2019, and has published a book on the effects of AI in certain industries and on bias in recruiting. The tech giant now finds itself in the ironic position of suing the US government to defend its customers’ privacy rights. In addition, Microsoft announced recently that it aims to be carbon negative by 2030. 

Google, meanwhile, set up an external advisory board in April 2019 to focus on the ethics of its own AI work and to ensure that it was following its own manifesto on AI principles. 

Wanted: a chief ethics officer

You can, of course, doubt how effective these initiatives are going to be in practice. Google’s advisory board, for example, was sadly disbanded after just a week because of a backlash surrounding one of the appointed members. Talking the talk clearly isn’t good enough.

But there are companies out there that are truly making an impact.

To return to Davos, the chief executive of customer-relationship management provider Salesforce, Marc Benioff, warned this year that “this obsession that we have with maximising profits for shareholders alone has led to incredible inequality and a planetary emergency”. He declared modern capitalism is “dead”, saying that business leaders now have a “responsibility” to think beyond just shareholders. 

Benioff is putting his money where his mouth is. Not content to just talk about ethics, he’s hired someone to make it happen. In 2019, the company appointed Paula Goldman as  chief ethics officer to “implement a strategic framework for the ethical and humane use of technology” and build “an understanding of Salesforce’s broader responsibility to their customers and society”. 

Benioff isn’t the only one to have had this idea. Julian Wheatland, acting chief executive of Cambridge Analytica until it was shut down in May 2018, declared in a recent interview that chief ethics officers should be the norm.

Why? “To ensure that the company is actually doing what it says it’s doing. This person, along with internal audit procedures, would be responsible for making sure that the company is complying with its own data ethics policies and, frankly, thinking two steps ahead and anticipating danger — in precisely the way that regulators can’t.”

Corporates know that they have to become more “humane” and aware of their impact on society. There are limits to what you can do with company policy and messaging alone — if you want to be humane, you need a human. Once you’ve realised that tomorrow’s workers and consumers demand greater social and ethical responsibility from companies, you need to put that at the heart of your business.

It’s only a matter of time before chief ethics officers are a staple part of any big company’s management team. Could 2020 be the year that this new job title becomes mainstream? My money’s on yes.

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Main image credit: Getty

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