Why HR must support the development of a code of ethics

Ethics scales
Berezko/iStock
Steve Wells
Operations Director
Fast Future Publishing
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The rapid increase in the power and prevalence of digital technologies is radically changing the nature and scope of ethical issues seen in the workplace. There is currently no ‘gold standard’ template to follow when producing a code of ethics relating to these emerging technologies.

Hence, HR is in a key position to i) facilitate dialogue internally and externally; ii) help codify the digital ethics framework under which the organisation can operate; and iii) ensure compliance.

This article aims to draw on key themes highlighted in our recent books The Future of Business and Technology vs. Humanity to identify upcoming areas of concern in relation to our conduct with technology and strategies that HR can adopt in forming digital ethics codes.

Businesses of all sizes and in all sectors are seeing increased uptake and deployment of powerful digital technologies. Many firms are exploiting the transformative potential of developments such as artificial intelligence (AI), cloud storage, big data, the internet of things (IoT), wearable devices, and blockchain.

For HR, sitting as it does between employer and employee, it is in a key position to drive and direct the discussion regarding the use and reach of digital technologies.

These digital solutions can increase efficiency, strengthen service, help cut costs, enable differentiation, and drive growth. The need for speed in securing the potential benefits - coupled with rapidly decreasing costs and ease of access - means that these technologies are being adopted and combined in the workplace at an ever-faster rate.

What’s missing in many cases is a simultaneous increase in the implementation of ethical guidelines around the uses of such technologies. It is becoming increasingly clear that a substantial code of ethics relating to digital technologies will be necessary for all companies to ensure employers and employees are operating within acceptable ethical boundaries.

Customers, employees, shareholders, regulators, and society as a whole will increasingly judge firms in terms of their use and misuse of the powerful technologies and vast arrays of data they have at their disposal.

Technology is driving radical change in the employer-employee boundary.

There are many potential ethical questions being raised around new technologies. Issues that were historically the preserve of philosophical discussion or legal theory are increasingly entering the workplace.

The question of ‘just because we can, does that mean we should?’ is being raised more frequently. Traditional notions of privacy, ownership and consent are constantly being tested.

The ubiquity of the Internet of Things (IoT) may raise concerns about the extent to which employee behaviour can be monitored;

  • Is the amount of food staff consumes something the company could or should track?
  • Should companies aggregate and analyse data from employees’ wearable health trackers – is such wellness monitoring beneficial or invasive?
  • In some firms, brain scanning technology is already in use to monitor employee concentration, is this appropriate or invasive?
  • Could a system of informed consent mitigate any ethical concerns or is there an absolute line, the sanctity of which cannot be crossed?
  • Does such surveillance fit into the traditional remit of a business – as simply an extension of monitoring productivity - or does it radically alter the boundaries between employer and employee?

As these technologies change the nature and scope of employees’ work, the relationship between employee and employer may also see a substantive change.

For example, we are seeing the increasing use of AI chatbots which learn from their human counterparts and then take on many of the query handling tasks previously performed by that person.

Technologies such as wearable devices and IoT are not merely functional mechanical tools, but are changing the behaviours of individuals.

The chatbot monitors their human mentor and learns each time they address a new or more complex issue. They can also monitor the human’s work rate and effectiveness – should this information be shared with management?

The full nature of the changes we can expect and the extent to which they impact the working environment will depend on the business, the technology being used and the potential benefits and harms it may produce.

For HR, sitting as it does between employer and employee, it is in a key position to drive and direct the discussion regarding the use and reach of digital technologies, drawing out concerns that may arise and formulating an appropriate ethical framework.

Ethical guidelines as policy

Technologies are changing the way people work. Technologies such as wearable devices and IoT are not merely functional mechanical tools, but are changing the behaviours of individuals.

Data collected from wearables and IoT can be aggregated, stored in large databases, processed and analysed using ever smarter business intelligence and AI tools.

These databases, traditionally seen as a mere repository for raw data, now facilitate the ability of data scientists to draw out critical insights and enable a range of predictions - conclusions can be drawn from a mere snapshot of data.

This transformation will impact on the workplace; the behaviours of staff, management expectations and the scope of tasks.

Importantly, as with other organisational changes, HR is key in formulating policy and ensuring compliance.

An ethical framework will become as common place as health and safety policy; understanding of and compliance with ethical guidelines will become an industry standard requirement in most sectors.

As such, HR is in the position to ensure that management and employees i) know the ethical issues, such as privacy concerns, that may be raised; ii) are aware that there are strategies to mitigate potential problems; and iii) ensure that their respective behaviours are compliant with these ethical considerations.

The ethical questions that arise will be depend on the technology, the extent of its use, and the organisation.

Digital ethics workshops can open up the dialogue between management and employees, compliance training can introduce and guide appropriate actions, and a process of informed consent can ensure employees understand the implications of the technologies and applications being adopted.

Strategies for guideline formation

The ethical questions that arise will be depend on the technology, the extent of its use, and the organisation.

Much of the day to day functioning of HR is increasingly digitised and automated; AI can respond to queries, big data can process huge amounts of employee information and a range of third party applications and services now provide core tasks previously performed by HR.

As such, time will be freed up and the HR department will increasingly have the bandwidth to look to the horizon to see what technologies and associated ethical challenges might emerge.

HR can join the internal dialogue between strategists, line managers and the IT function to understand what technologies the company is considering adopting, and thereafter consult with the appropriate persons – ethical specialists, compliance trainers – to formulate appropriate guidelines.

Becoming an ethical employer

In the coming years, expectations will rise.

As technological uptake continues the temptation to step ever further into the lives of customers and employees will undoubtedly increase.

Hence the range of ethical challenges will grow – particularly in terms of what is considered acceptable practice and what is expected of a business.

Current and potential employees may come to expect as standard practice the adoption of robust ethical guidelines that are clear cornerstones of policy.

As with other policy formation, HR is in a key position to develop these guidelines – to ensure that organisations stay relevant.

The changing role of HR

With the issues and developments discussed above, it may be time for HR departments to carve out the ethical territory within organisations.

As HR has the capacity to steer and develop guidelines, it may be that the role changes from one of developing capacity to that of responsibility guardians.

As technological uptake continues the temptation to step ever further into the lives of customers and employees will undoubtedly increase.

HR could see a substantial change from a functional department to a conscientious and ethical department; increasingly it may act like the conscience of the organisation.

A more proactive HR could emerge.

As much of the functional side of HR is automated, and as the necessity for ethical guidelines becomes industry standard, HR can take a proactive role in steering the ethical practice of a company, in turn affecting its policy, business strategy and standing in the market. 

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