The Social Dilemma has brought a wave of attention to ethical concerns about social media, and the companies responsible.
Personally, watching the documentary led me to consider action in my own company. How have we talked about ethics before, and how should we talk about it moving forward? More specifically, I'd like to outline what we talked about, how we talked about, and how we can successfully talk about ethics again.
At Snagajob, we have a standing weekly time slot (we call it a "Tech Talk") where anyone can present on any topic for the purpose of learning and/or discussion. While there have been a wide variety of topics, I previously moderated a discussion on Ethics in Tech at Snagajob. This was a presentation split into two topics (it was originally three, but we ran out of time working through the first two): "The Application Black Hole" and "Responsible Communication Monitoring".
Presented by fellow engineer, David Koslow, The Application Black Hole references bugs in our system that result in job applications being lost before employers even see them. Big bugs are easy to justify, with a larger impact to finances and brand, but what about when we only lose an application or two a day? From a resourcing standpoint alone, this most likely wouldn't be worth our time, but those one or two applications have the potential to be life altering for someone. We don't have a financial lever to represent this, so how do we create the case for making sure these bugs can't be overlooked?
Our second topic was presented by Candace Nicolls, our Senior Vice President of People and Workplace. Like many software products in the industry, we collect and monitor NPS on our applications. These inputs also have a free text portion, where scorers can input their thoughts and feedback.
We had a scenario where a job seeker wrote suicidal thoughts into the NPS feedback box and submitted it to our team.
This discussion was a long one, and we ended up trying to tackle questions like: What is our responsibility when this happens? Should we change how we think about free text inputs on our site, is this happening somewhere else? What do other products do with suicidal language? How should we think about our communication channels as they evolve over time to handle this?
One of the most encouraging things about our discussion was the energy for change it created. I had a large number of folks contact me after our discussion (from individual contributors up to directors) about how we work to solve some of things we talked about, or other ideas they had about Snagajob and ethics in general.
I think my largest failure so far has been to not harness that enthusiasm into specific outcomes that we can achieve. What can we do about any outstanding job application bugs? How should we modify our communication channels to understand if someone we're communicating with is in danger?
In the interest of running another one of these discussions, I've broken down important points into a few categories:
Solicit attendance from as many perspectives as possible. Get different departments, different contributor levels, different genders, different races, different philosophies, different everything. The more perspectives you can bring to the discussion, the more everyone benefits from it.
Talk to your fellow employees about potential topics ahead of time. You'll likely find that there are a number of people passionate about a variety of topics. Encourage those passionate about a topic to present their ideas to the group.
Death by PowerPoint is not the way to go on this one (or in any presentation really). Slides can be helpful, but keep them concise and focus on discussion.
Use a moderator to help keep conversation on topic and on time. This individual can also be very helpful in starting discussions if your group is a little shy. Have the moderator work with the presenter(s) beforehand so they can prepare questions to assist discussion if needed.
Relate topics back to the work at your company. Connect concerns to the day to day work of your peers.
If you are going to dive into a sensitive topic, warn before the meeting starts and as the meeting is starting. For those that are not comfortable talking about a topic, there shouldn't be a surprise.
The discussion may veer towards "What can we do about this?". This is great, and is a starting point for action. Depending on the resources and focus of your company, come out with action items. Is there a related cause you can donate time or money to? Is there a way to modify your product to support your intent? Are others in your industry doing something about it, should they be?
If discussions like these are rare or new to your group, a good goal is getting others to begin incorporating ethical considerations into their own development or work process. If more people think about holistic impacts of their work, you'll hopefully start having these discussions as part of your grooming exercises.
Have you talked about ethical concerns at your company before? What has been successful for you? What hasn't? What barriers have prevented you from having discussions like these successfully? I'd love to know more about how others have approached these discussions in their workplaces.