Brian Gallagher's blog

A Theranos Whistleblower’s Mission to Make Tech Ethical

Several times in conversation people have asked me whether I mean Thanos, the Marvel villain, when I bring up Theranos. “No,” I say, “I mean Theranos, the tech company once valued at $9 billion before it imploded due to scandal—haven’t you seen the ads for the HBO documentary? They’re everywhere.” I add that Theranos of course wasn’t Thanos-level bad, but still pretty bad. Anyone can get the gist of what went wrong from little more than headlines: “Theranos Founder Elizabeth Holmes charged with massive fraud,” from CNN, or “What happened at Theranos is a dazzling story of deception,” from the Chicago Tribune. But it’s an advantage and a pleasure to hear what happened at Theranos from someone who blew the whistle on its duplicitous conduct: Erika Cheung.

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Business Roundtable Wants Fair Employee Payment, But What About Agency?

Well into his 30s, my father ran a pool-plumbing business that just got us by: Sometimes clients wouldn’t pay, and when they did, it wouldn’t be uncommon for checks to bounce. His workers would demand higher wages while he would often have to fix poor work on-site, which would cut into his budget and time. I remember my father feeling despondent and trapped in this job. He got out, though, in the early 2000s, when he discovered the stock market. In those days it was easy, if rare, for a novice day-trader to make tens of thousands of dollars, at home, in a few hours. It could be stressful work—he’d sometimes lose thousands quickly, too—but he enjoyed it. He loved the freedom. He worked for and with no one but himself.

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Evolutionary Thinking Can Help Companies Foster More Ethical Culture

Charles Darwin ended The Origin of Species, his argument for evolution by natural selection, on a note of celebrated eloquence. “There is grandeur to this view of life,” he wrote, “with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

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Does Ideological Diversity Makes Teams More Effective?

As I was watching The Expanse, a science fiction TV series, I realized that the show demonstrates, perhaps without meaning to, the value of ideological diversity within a team. The story follows the small crew of the Rocinante as they stumble into a solar system-wide conspiracy that threatens a fragile peace among a United Nations-led Earth, an independent Mars, and the volatile factions in the asteroid belt and outer planets. Two of the crew are “Earthers”—one with a much more privileged upbringing than the other—one is a Martian, and the other is a “Belter,” raised on mining ships. They not only have radically different backgrounds but also diverging ideological orientations and opposing political allegiances. Yet to survive, and successfully expose an existential conspiracy, they overcome and exploit their differences in making wise and creative choices.

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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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“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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