Policy Vehicles for Ethical Stances

Lately I’ve been wondering about companies that take a strong stance on some public policy issue: gun violence, immigration, climate change, and so forth. My question isn’t so much why a company does this; modern times have seared social issues into the public conversation.

Rather, my question is how. That is, once senior executives do embrace some ethical stance and want to imprint that value onto the businesses they run — how do they do it? What are the policies and practices a company should use so that the ethical stance transforms into an institutional value the whole organization reflects?

Then I stumbled upon an interview in the New York Times last weekend with Dan Schulman, CEO of PayPal. He was talking about PayPal’s policy against processing firearm sales (PayPal doesn’t allow any firearms-related transactions, period), and framed the question beautifully in one sentence.

If you’re going to have a consistent set of values that you stand up for, they have to be reflected in your acceptable use policy.

For many companies, on many issues, that’s the vehicle you can use to put an ethical stance into organizational practice: an acceptable use policy. It’s an especially good fit for consumer-facing companies (like PayPal) since it gives you discretion to control how consumers use your product.

After all, institutionalizing ethical stances is increasingly something that companies can’t avoid. And here I don’t mean ethical principles about how to do business, such as “we don’t bribe to win business” or “we don’t steal intellectual property.” Those are easy questions from an ethics and compliance perspective, especially since doing either one is a crime anyway.

What’s coming next are ethical stances on issues that aren’t crimes. Instead, those stances are rooted in fundamental beliefs about what is morally right and what isn’t — and people tend to disagree on those beliefs, so planting your organization firmly on one side or the other isn’t an easy thing to do.

Acceptable Use Policies in Action

Acceptable use policies govern how others use your product or service to do something. Little surprise, then, that much of the conversation about “AUPs” revolves around how to use the Internet, and specifically how schools can structure AUPs for students using their facilities to access the Internet.

Which led me to the National Education Association, and its six recommended elements for an acceptable use policy:

  • preamble;
  • definition section;
  • policy statement;
  • acceptable uses section;
  • unacceptable uses section; and
  • a violations/sanctions section.

That’s an excellent framework to develop an acceptable use policy first because it can be audited (“Do we have all six elements in our AUP for this product?”), and second because it can evolve with your risks and concerns.

For example, you can insert a training prerequisite into your policy statement, or require people to certify that they won’t use the product in an inappropriate way. You can update the definitions or examples of acceptable or unacceptable uses to fit whatever new concerns have arisen lately.

AUPs are, really, just an expanded version of any other policy an organization might have to govern internal conduct. You’re simply pushing those policies views onto other stakeholders (customers or users) and extracting a promise that they will abide your terms. (And yes, I know many people will then ignore the AUP they just affirmed.)

Beyond the Limits of AUPs

Acceptable use policies are great as far as they go. What about the rest of us in organizations that don’t intersect with consumers all that much? What about ethical stances on issues that rile up employees more than customers?

That’s the sticking point for many companies that work with the Trump Administration. A portion of their employees (sometimes a significant portion) don’t want to work with the Trump Administration because they view it as an unsavory business partner that pushes values contrary to America: exclusion, intolerance, conflicts of interest, fiscal irresponsibility, subversion of the rule of law.

Acceptable use policies don’t help here. This is more a question of what the company you keep (the Trump Administration) says about the organization’s ethical priorities (profit, even from unsavory business partners, is more important than holding true to your ethical values).

Schulman didn’t address working with the Trump Administration directly. The closest he came was this:

Companies, and by extension their management teams and their CEOs, have a moral obligation to try to be a force for good. I don’t think there’s any way that we can shirk that responsibility, and I don’t think there’s any way to fully stand away from the culture wars around us. You have to take a stand. That stand shouldn’t be a political one. But it should be one that is based on your values and your mission.

Schulman is kidding himself if he believes companies can step into the culture wars and not open themselves to accusations of playing politics. The very notion of “culture wars” implies one group trying to impose their social values on the nation as a whole, so these wars are always political. And then we’re back to squabbling about the very embodiment of division and bitterness: President Donald J. Trump.

I don’t see that distraction receding any time soon. We would do well to consider the person who put us here.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.