On Corporate Ethics: Creeps and Jerks

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Since every even vaguely tech-oriented blog on the face of the earth has already pointed to Mark Zuckerberg’s blog post on Beacon, I won’t bother to suggest that you go read it, but take a look at what Lauren Weinstein has to say on Google, Facebook, users, and corporate ethics.

As I was reading the items above, I was reminded of a conversation that I had a couple of months ago: a friend was making the case that Google’s unofficial motto of “don’t be evil” was a surprisingly effective tool for keeping the company on course. The thinking went something like this:

Looking at evolutionary biology you have your “phyletic gradualism” people and your “punctuated equilibrium” people; phyletic gradualism proposes that evolutionary changes take place steadily and gradually, where punctuated equilibrium instead proposes that such changes take place mostly in quick bursts, with long, relatively static periods in between. Basically, most evolutionary biologists are either “creeps” or “jerks” on this issue.

One can look at corporations in a similar way. Relatively few companies set out to be evil; while there are certainly examples of “fuck all of you, we’re looking out for number one and everybody else can go screw” organizations out there, in the overwhelming majority of cases companies—like the people who make them up—basically want to do good. So how do we end up with so many companies doing so many ethically questionable things? That’s where the creeping and jerking comes in…and it’s the creeping that we need to pay the most attention to.

There isn’t much you can do about the jerks. When the minutes from a board meeting read “John Doe presented to the Board a plan to secretly dump toxic waste in playgrounds around the city, for approval, whereupon motion duly made, seconded and unanimously adopted, the plan was approved as presented in Exhibit A,” you’ve got a clear jerk into evil territory, and the people involved are well aware of what they’re doing.

The creeping, however, is more insidious. Little decisions are made every day, and—precisely because they’re little decisions—it’s easy to cut a little slack when making them:

“I’m not sure this is a great idea, but it’s just a small change.”
“We’ll just see how it works…we can always change back.”
“It’s not really that different from what we do now.”

These little decisions pile up over time. A company can (metaphorically speaking) wake up one morning and find that it’s doing evil, without ever having made a single really evil decision. And the really big gotcha in the creeping evil scenario is that while it’s hard to stop doing evil in any situation (hence the existence of organized religion), it’s even harder to stop when you don’t know how you started doing evil in the first place.

What’s powerful about Google’s “don’t be evil” motto, in contrast to many statements of corporate principle, is that it’s simple (though not easy). While the debate over what is and isn’t evil with respect to Google’s actions will continue both inside the company and outside, the motto provides a touchstone that is easy to grasp. In the context of corporate ethics, “is it evil to do X?” while very subjective, is a much more productive initial question for an employee to be considering than “can anybody remember whether our corporate principles said anything about doing X?”

Zuckerberg’s Beacon post suggests that Facebook experienced the creeping evil: none of the component decisions or elements are evil in and of themselves, but the little bits of slack added up. And when the blowup happened, Facebook lost time in responding because they were trying to figure out where the evil creeped in, so that they could do something about it.