Tech staff quit over fear of social consequences

Written by Hannah McGrath
13/05/2019

Nearly one in five of tech employees who have seen their company take decisions that could have a negative impact on society have quit their job on ethical grounds, a new study has found.

A survey of more than 1,000 technology professionals by think tank Doteveryone found that a rising number of employees across a range of sectors are concerned by ethical impact, with more than a quarter (28 per cent) saying they had seen decisions made that could make technologies harmful for people or society.

The impact is most acute in the artificial intelligence (AI) sector, where 59 per cent of workers have seen potentially harmful product decisions, and more than one in four (27 per cent) of these went on to quit as a result.

Almost two-thirds of people working in tech (63 per cent) would like more opportunities to assess the potential impacts of their products, but at the moment, they said anticipating consequences of products for society ranks as the lowest priority in their work, losing out to goals such as product development and keeping up with rapidly evolving competition.

Estimates cited by Doteveryone suggested that the cost of a worker that leaving a company comes to around £30,000 – meaning failure to address ethical concerns could cost firms more than reputational damage.

In addition, while technology firms are assumed to be resistant to regulation to address ethical issues, almost 45 per cent of tech workers who responded to the survey said regulation was the preferred way to ensure the societal impacts of their products are taken into account.

Despite their concerns, the vast majority of tech workers believe technology is a force for good and envision a future where technology can address issues like climate change and supporting the vulnerable, with 90 per cent saying tech has benefited them as an individual and 81 per cent that it’s benefited society as a whole.

However, in keeping with cautious optimism expressed by the rest of survey, 80 per cent agreed that companies have a responsibility to ensure their technologies don’t have negative consequences for people and society.

In a foreword to the report, Martha Lane Fox, executive chair and founder of Doteveryone, said: “Any entrepreneur knows that hiring and keeping good people is one of the secrets of a successful business.”

She added that with 93 per cent of UK tech businesses already find it hard to attract the right talent, “this research shows that irresponsible and unethical behaviour will not make that any easier”.