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Glassdoor Data Is Revealing the Link Between Culture and Good Business

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden elicited some playful teasing when, early in his presidential campaign, he rather quirkily took to quoting Immanuel Kant, the renowned German philosopher. In various venues, he’d paraphrase what Kant, in one formulation, called his “categorical imperative”—to treat people as ends in themselves, never as a means. On the talk show The View, for instance, Biden said, “We have to restore dignity to work. We have to restore dignity to the way we treat people...We treat them like they’re a means to an end.” Andrew Yang, another candidate, has hit the same note in a different way, touting a “Freedom Dividend,” his plan for universal basic income, as a needed turn toward “human-centered capitalism.” One of his several mottos—“Humanity First”—is also unmistakably Kantian.

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How This Acclaimed Entrepreneur Built an Honest Company from the Ground Up

As headlines barrage us with news of once-beloved companies turned crooked, I’ve wondered: Are the strongest ethical companies those that have embedded systems in their DNA that promote a culture of honesty from the start? Business communication company Nextiva offers an example of an organization that incorporated systems that promote integrity from its inception. I spoke with co-founder and CEO Tomas Gorny to learn more about how he did it.

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“Superstore” and the Science of Pitching Social Change at Work

In an episode of NBC’s sitcom Superstore, Cheyenne, a teenage associate at a Walmart-like retail giant called Cloud-9, goes into labor on the store floor. Coworkers rush for medical supplies as customers spectate out of curiosity and boredom. Cheyanne’s at work so late in her pregnancy because her employer doesn’t offer paid maternity leave—she can’t afford to miss a paycheck. A send-up of bureaucratic mores ensues when Amy, the floor supervisor, and Jonah, another associate, call corporate: Is changing maternity leave policy part of any conversation there, Jonah asks, since “other big companies do offer it? Typically their employees would be in unions—” Cut off, he’s told, “You’re being transferred.” Employee Relations gets on the line, then Legal. Finally, on a high-level conference call, they’re ominously told someone will be coming to their store tomorrow. The Cloud-9 employees look at each other and realize they may have botched their approach.

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The Case Against A.I. Controlling Our Moral Compass

Earlier this month, at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, I saw something, or someone, that would, on any other day, be out of place: a philosopher. Damon Horowitz—a philosopher at Columbia University who has a history of serial entrepreneurship and was once In-House Philosopher and Director of Engineering at Google—was here to lend his wisdom to a conference on ethical culture in the corporate world, called “Building Cultural Capital in the Financial Services Industry: Emerging Practices, Risks and Opportunities.” His subject was the way that efficiency—aided by computer power, massive data-collection, and machine-learning algorithms—is beginning, or threatening, to creep into the moral sphere. That is, businesses are being confronted with the temptation to outsource the responsibility of ethical decision-making to A.I., a temptation humans shouldn’t give in to, he explained, because algorithms operate on incomplete information, their decision-making process is a black box, and it’d be undignified for us to use machines as ethical proxies out of convenience.

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Ethics Bots and Other Ways to Move Your Code of Business Conduct Beyond Puffery

Eugene Soltes, a professor at Harvard Business School and an expert in why people commit fraud, gave a keynote speech at our recent Ethics by Design conference on how to engineer integrity in organizations. Part of that effort involves crafting effective codes of business conduct. Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge recently discussed Soltes’ new research on the role ethics bots might play in improving the impact codes of conduct have in the workplace:

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The Lawyer Who Wants to Transform Legal Ethics with Behavioral Science

Tigran Eldred started his career as an appellate lawyer, working on behalf of criminal defendants who had been convicted of serious offenses. This often meant he needed to investigate whether his clients had received adequate representation by their trial attorneys. Too often, though, when he would question a trial lawyer about why certain decisions were—or were not—made before or during the trial, the lawyer would become very defensive. Some lawyers would not even be willing to speak to him. This astounded him, as these are lawyers whose job it had been to zealously represent the interests of his clients. Frustrated, Eldred started to explore some of the psychological research that might explain why someone might place self-interest over the duties owed to their clients. The result was his first paper, which explored the psychology of conflicts of interest in criminal cases. Eldred has been interested in, and developed a greater understanding of the psychological dimensions of, ethical decision-making ever since.

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Is Creative Talent Critical to Ethical Systems Design?

In March, Ethical Systems hosted its second “Ethics by Design” conference. It showcased not just the expertise of top behavioral-science researchers and business practitioners, but also the challenges—both empirical and managerial—that they face in redesigning organizations to function more ethically. As social psychologist Jon Haidt, the Founding Director of Ethical Systems, said in his closing remarks, “At the end of the day, I have a much greater appreciation of just how hard it is to make good systems.” The trouble, of course, is the human being. Since our behavior can be hard to understand and predict, psychological knowledge, Haidt said, is crucial: “Any system that’s designed that doesn’t take human nature into account—a really deep understanding of human nature—is likely to become a monstrous system.”

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Mirage or Vision? Four Blind Spots at the Core of Theranos’ Failure

The parable of Elizabeth Holmes and her company, Theranos, is not an unfamiliar one. It involves a dream, a mission, a plan, a vision and quite possibly monumental corruption. It’s unclear whether Theranos’ rise and fall will turn out to be a dazzling mirage of “would-be” business greatness, one of the most infamous stories of corporate fraud in the 21st century, or, an ironic reminder of the inescapable weakness of biased decision-making. What we know for certain is that behind this particular corporate failure lies a cautionary tale of boundless visioning that all investors, entrepreneurs and organizations seeking breakthrough innovations should be interested in further understanding.

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Miss the 2019 Ethics by Design Conference? Watch It Online

Jon Haidt, in his closing remarks during our second Ethics by Design conference, wanted to share his overall takeaway, encapsulating a day’s worth of ideas on managing organizations in an era of anxiety, polarization, and disruption. “We’re always talking about the importance of systems—ethical systems, designing systems. At the end of the day, I have a much greater appreciation of just how hard it is to make good systems,” the Founding Director of Ethical Systems said. He noted that lots of people help make systems, in engineering and economics, but you wouldn’t want engineers or economists designing a system alone, for human beings to inhabit. “We need the input of economists and engineers, but there have to be humanists involved. These are ultimately systems for human beings. And any system that’s designed that doesn’t take human nature into account—a really deep understanding of human nature—is likely to become a monstrous system.”

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How the Stressful World of Science Can Be Healthier (and More Ethical)

Last month, Tim van der Zee, a Ph.D. student at the University of Leiden who studies ways to improve open online education, got a bit snarky. He didn’t take well to a recent news article from Science magazine about how meditation can help Ph.D. students handle their outsized rates of anxiety and depression. “A recent study suggests that mindfulness interventions—a form of exercise for the brain—may help,” the publication tweeted, linking to the article. Van der Zee’s reply garnered hundreds of retweets and over a thousand likes: “Ah yes,” he said, “the correct response to the widespread problem of mental health problems in phd students is not to tackle it systematically but to... *checks notes*... make it their personal responsibility, [and] increase their workload with daily exercises…”

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