In house ethics teams are useless

In-house ethics, or accessibility, or diversity and inclusion teams are for the most part useless and can't do their job they were designed to do. This is why I think that, and what I think might work better.

Photo of a crumbling house with the words "just don't" painted on its face with huge white letters.

At some point I want to be smart enough to pen an essay about these topics, but for now you’ll have to bear with the smooth brain version of my ramblings. It’s a Thursday morning, I’ve not had a sip of coffee yet. I glanced at a toot on mastodon briefly and my brain said: “yah, you need to write this!”

What’s the purpose of an in house ethics team?

Or an in house diversity team? Or an in house accessibility team?

It’s gatekeeping. At the end of the day, some of the other teams are about to do something and the ethics / diversity / accessibility team says “nah, that’s a dumbass idea, don’t do it.”

Maybe it’s drafting a job description that is incredibly sexist or misogynist. Maybe the front end team created some code in which things that look like buttons are actually spans, other tags have a bunch of missing required attributes, and nothing appears until JavaScript does its thing. Maybe it’s creating an “AI” that hoovers up everyone’s data and is programmed to disclose them to everyone for any reason.

So you’re saying that ethics / diversity / accessibility teams are useless?

Nope. That is not the important word in the title. The one you want to focus on is “in-house”.

It’s an incredibly simple reason as well: how do you say “no” to a bunch of people who have the power to fire your entire team and wind down the department if they don’t like what they hear?

Not that that would ever happen as evidenced by the toot I saw literally this morning.

screenshot of a toot. It's a reply to Timnit Gebru. The toot reads "thank you for breaking this down. It makes me deeply uncomfortable that the same folks who silenced their ethics teams are now trying to lead the conversation on their terms."

Here’s the link to the toot:

The wider context of that reply is that the future of life institute, a longtermist something or other, is widely misattributing something Timnit Gebru and her team wrote not too long ago.

The same Timnit Gebru who was fired from Google when she told them things they didn’t want to hear. The firing got a lot of media attention. Ironically you can use Google (or Bing or Duckduckgo or Kagi, or your favourite other flavour of search engine) to find out what happened there.

But wait, what if, when these teams are created, they are properly safeguarded?

With manifestos or codes of conduct, or proper contracts? All of which can be changed by the organization itself because the new team is going to be part of the org. At this point not even an union would help, because the power in collective bargaining is that if they stop work, that hurts the company, so the company is motivated to fix the thing that would stop them stopping work and resume normal operations. If the goal is for the ethics team to not do their job, then stopping work is a desirable outcome.

What’s the solution?

In an ideal world, regulation. All of my American readers have spontaneously combusted upon reading this, because “how dare you suggest government interference into my private business?!”

I see two problems what that even smoother brain reaction though:

  • first, when a private company’s activity widely influences and impacts the society around them, at that moment their inner workings stop being solely under the influence of the owners and managers. “We live in a society” and all that, and
  • second, you already have government interference into your private business. You can’t do false advertising without legal troubles. You can’t hire non-US citizens for certain positions (applicable to US companies working in the space rocket industry for example). Your entire hiring pipeline is regulated by a bunch of laws around equal hiring practices. You have to pay taxes. The list goes on.

Government regulation into ethics would ensure make it more likely that when your company does sketchy stuff, there are actual consequences besides the annoying 10 minutes to fire the naysayers and shoot a quick email to the good folks in Public Relations to contain the fallout.

Your in-house ethics teams are merely a PR exercise, because they don’t actually have any power to do their jobs.

Photo by James Orr on Unsplash