Ethical behavior in the digital workplace: a lesson from my 3rd-grade teacher Mrs. White.
Organizations could learn a lot from teachers and the classroom. The environment is all about sharing knowledge, increasing engagement, and developing people. There are a lot of analogies to be made; unfortunately, bullying is also something that seeped into our minds when we were kids and then we smuggled those bad habits with us into the workplace.
The schoolyard at the workplace
A lot of us won’t notice it, but people are constantly put down, made fun of, upset, or even frightened. In other words, degraded, humiliated, offended, or intimidated. At school, it was the teacher’s responsibility to be alert, see the situation for what it is and take action to stop the note from going around the classroom or to take the side of the victim.
In workplaces, it’s the responsibility of the manager, or HR if escalated, to see that no one is bullied, ganged up on, insulted, or attacked in ways that fall under the opaque and trivializing term “unprofessional behavior”. The leaders are in charge of workplace culture and if they allow the organization to behave this way, they have failed and shouldn’t be surprised to see that word gets out fast.
The pandemic changed office work and work culture dramatically. Most of our conversations, especially in groups, are in workplace chat apps like Slack or Teams (I’ll just call these Slack for simplicity’s sake), which are being deployed en masse. Managers are confronting the fact that Slack can amplify company infighting, group people around negativity, and eventually divide organizations like Facebook is dividing countries. Slack has become the mirror that reflects the pathologies inherent in your workplace.
After the shift of executives rushing to install Slack, there is a growing group of leaders that have begun to regret their decision. It’s already got a clever name — Slacklash.
We are unlikely to get rid of it though. Slack is here to stay.
The price of a safe place to work
So what can we do? It is the company’s responsibility to offer a safe place to work for everyone.
It’s possible to swing it the other way too much as well. The Economist wrote already in 2018 about how AI is being harnessed to spy on employees. There are tools that arguably go too far in their employee monitoring. There is clearly a huge grey area in how we should be keeping a tab on employees digitally. Deloitte’s report on Ethics and the Future of Work says that workplaces aren’t properly equipped to think ethically. 31% of respondents thought that they did not have the knowledge or skills to manage the monitoring of individuals and the workplace with AI and data.
As an example of monitoring tools that might have gone too far, The Economist investigated Humanyze, which sells smart wearable badges that track every move and conversation you have with your colleagues. Humanyze integrates with your emails and data to see your activity and has Bluetooth and microphones to hear what you are talking about in the office and even see what your posture is like. This is a prime example of clients that have not through how technology will bring forth new ethical challenges.
There is plenty of employee data to be gathered in Slack as well. The clue is in Slack’s name, which stands for “searchable log of all conversation and knowledge”. And many businesses are thinking about what the correct, ethical way to use this treasure trove of data would be.
Thanks, Mrs. White.
30 years ago, I passed a note in class to a girl I liked. I think the note said, “Will you be my darling?” The teacher, Mrs. White, noticed me passing on the note. She asked that I give it over. There was nothing I could do. She was going to read it aloud in class. I had to obey or I’d get smacked with a ruler (this was in Zimbabwe in 1990). The thought of swallowing the note did not cross my mind. I watched in horror as Mrs. White opened the note, read what was in it, and put it away. She continued with the class and that was it.
The nature of authority
This is the role that we would like our managers to have too — the authoritative yet benevolent leader: seeing, listening, and ultimately making the final decision on what is to be done. In Slack, they can set ground rules, see what is happening in the groups, and if needed, gently indicate things should be done in another way. In the worst case, they can reprimand employees for unprofessional behavior. But this does put a lot of pressure on Mrs. White. What if she wouldn’t have that level of empathy and instead would want to embarrass an 8-year-old boy?
So who is responsible then?
Even though we are seeing companies taking a much more “people-first” approach, companies are not democracies. Corporations can be tiny tyrannies, benevolent dictatorships, or even codetermined with employees also on the board. They are in any case, based around a central authority to fulfill a purpose defined by its board. The same rules of democratic society do not apply. So you could make the case that the employer has every right to monitor employees as long as they are not breaking the law. For all they care, managers can shut down those private chat boards. Those are the makings of an awful organization though.
Healing the relationship between employer and employees
What is needed is a collaborative, not an adversarial relationship between employees and employers. To get rid of bullying, secret hate groups, and Orwellian surveillance, you need transparency.
In a whitepaper by Great Place To Work, they looked at data going back to the Great Recession of 2007–2009 and compared businesses to understand why some survived and even thrived, while others didn’t. The businesses that created good workplaces for employees and engaged the full talents of all their workers were the ones that survived or even did better during the recession. The businesses had measurable goals based on data insights. They fostered innovation at a grassroots level. They had analytics tools and metrics which were acted on and were also subject to scrutiny. This creates transparency and trust at work, flexibility to change, and resilience in times of financial hardship.
Marcus Erb, VP of Data Science & Innovation at Great Place To Work says:
“Research can help [businesses] deal with the future. This is not just something that is nice to do. It is something they must do. Learn what makes a great place to work and act on it.”
Seeing is believing
A transparent work environment allows you to understand what your employees are like and make the most of their talents. You may not necessarily like what you see, but that is the nature of transparency when people are involved. You should embrace it. Understanding who people are, how they behave, and talking with them without judgment is the only way to create real lasting change. So if you are going to pass around notes in class, you should know that everyone can see you. Transition to transparency.
Head of Customer Experience and Growth, Flowtrace
Flowtrace is an analytics tool, which maps out how your company collaborates by tracing information flows, so you can understand who the people are behind your business.