Do no evil (no, really)

The week’s big news – how Cambridge Analytica allegedly bought profile data from Facebook and used it to influence the outcome of the US election – has offered a fascinating (if terrifying) glimpse into the world of online data analysis.

Among the many jaw-dropping revelations and tone-deaf Twitter responses, the standout moment was the interview with Alexander Nix, Cambridge Analytica’s (now suspended) CEO.

When it was put to Nix that he had been caught on camera boasting about how his business had used data to influence the election outcome, his dismissive explanation was that he had been pitching for new business, so was obviously saying whatever the client wanted to hear.

What I found interesting was that he clearly imagined this made it okay. Which got me wondering: how messed up must your organisation’s moral compass be if ‘We routinely lie to prospective clients in order to get their money’ feels like a brand positioning you’re happy with?

Perhaps I’m naïve. Nix certainly seemed to feel he was being unfairly singled out for a practice that was routine in his industry. The board of Cambridge Analytica disagreed and threw him under the bus.

No doubt, this will shortly be followed by the disappearance of what has now become a toxic brand – and the business will quietly re-emerge with a new name, a new set of corporate values and (for at least a little while) a loud determination to act in a purely ethical manner.

Will this fix the problem? Or will it just be a temporary diversion, until the new leaders realise they’re losing market share to competitors who are still being less scrupulous about the way they manage data?

That’s the problem with ethics. As soon as you start finding ‘grey areas’, where you can make compromises that boost your profits without actually breaking the law, it’s tempting for under-pressure leaders to embrace them.

Which is exactly where ‘good’ businesses go bad. If your engineers get rewarded for finding ways to mysteriously improve your emissions test performance, that’s bad (Volkswagen). If your sales people get a bonus for selling people financial insurance they don’t need, that’s bad (any bank that mis-sold PPI).

But is either of those ethically worse than avoiding tax? Or deliberately paying your suppliers 60 days later than your commercial terms said you would? (Almost every large business I’ve ever dealt with).

Very few companies are actually ‘bad’. But don’t kid yourself that having a page of values that say things like ‘integrity’ and ‘transparency’ and ‘fairness’ is going to save you from public scrutiny when you’re caught crossing an ethical line.

Culture is about every single thing you do as a business. As soon as you start turning a blind eye to (or worse, rewarding) bad behaviour, you’re in the same boat as Alexander Nix.

 

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