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Google has transcended its original post, minding the gates to the internet, to now become a titan in global influence. Free services, fast information and easy communication are all trademarks of the Google brand but this bounty comes at a cost; Google has become the standard medium through which most people experience the world. Understanding the ethical underpinning of such an ubiquitous organisation is important to ensure that the power wielded by Google doesn’t translate to abuse. In this context, it is essential to ask if Google’s choice to de-emphasise their famous ‘Don’t be evil’ motto is ethically significant. This essay will argue that de-emphasising the ‘Don’t be evil’ motto is an insignificant change to an inherently flawed code of conduct, indicating an ethically unfocused, shareholder driven basis for decision making at Google. Firstly, the relation between a code of conduct and organisational ethical behaviour is explored. Secondly, Google’s corporate governance policies are analysed and their interaction with stakeholders. Finally, counter arguments will be considered.
The modern corporate environment is a mixing pot of social, political, economic and legal ingredients where transparency to employees and stakeholders alike is key (Cavanagh, 2004). In an attempt to articulate their fundamental principles, it has become common for organisations to adopt a code of conduct, to the extent that it has become a legal requirement in North America. A code of conduct is defined by Business Queensland as a document that contains an organisations “rules, values, ethical principles and vision” (Business.qld.gov.au, 2019). Internally, a code of conduct will help an organisation promote ethical behaviour in all employees and externally, the code communicates ethical attributes of organisational culture (Erwin, 2010). Codes of conduct are not yet legally binding however, and neither is their implementation. Moving past the legal requirements, the content and implementation or the ‘quality’ of a code of conduct is one of the topics explored by Erwin in his 2010 paper Corporate Codes of Conduct: The Effects of Code Content and Quality on Ethical Performance where he finds the organisation itself to be responsible for the quality of the code they adopt. Furthermore, Erwin (2010) identifies the failure of an organisation to embody the code and failure to implement the code as the key attributes of a low quality code of conduct. Low quality codes of ethics are rife in the corporate environment according to Weller (1988), who accuses organisations of using their codes as a “smokescreen”. This sentiment is seconded by Stevens (2007) who warns that ethical behaviour is not guaranteed just because an organisation has a code of conduct, and Erwin (2010), who identifies the incidence of “insincere, rhetoric based codes” to be on the rise.
Surface level comprehension of Google’s famous ‘Don’t be evil’ motto is optimistic, but delving deeper into ethical analysis and contextualising the motto within the organisation’s code of conduct reveals that the motto may be one of Weller’s ‘smokescreens’. The motto itself is ambiguous and fails to address the subjectivity of the word ‘evil’. What is evil in one culture may be considered good in another, what is evil to one stakeholder may be the primary goal for another. Therefore, the ethical underpinning of ‘evil’ must be understood through the organisation’s code of conduct. This proves difficult however, as the code simply claims Google operates at the “…highest possible standards”, completely failing to actually define these standards. Section 1.1 of the code attempts to further clarify, claiming “we seek to implement internationally recognised standards” (Alphabet investor Relations, 2019), but this only raises more questions, what ethical principles does Google seek to embody? Simply claiming to possess integrity and aspire to high standards without articulating the specifics of these standards will make it impossible for Google to properly embody their code, suggesting ‘Don’t be evil’ is the catchphrase of an insincere code that offers no direct insight into the driving ethical forces of the organisation. “Character, motivations and intentions” are the main drivers of an actor’s ethical behaviour according to Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics (Treviño and Nelson, 2007). Google has not clearly identified the parameters of its character nor its motivations, therefore any attempt at ethical behaviour is futile. Thus we can conclude that Google’s once famous ‘Don’t be evil motto’ along with their code of conduct appear to be purely perfunctory and that the company’s choice to de-emphasise the motto makes no difference to an indifferent stance on ethical misconduct.
Perhaps the underlying ethical forces that guide Google’s decision making can be better understood through an analysis of their interaction with stakeholders. A stakeholder can be defined as a “any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of an organisation’s objectives” (Freeman, 1984 pp 46). Shareholders have long been considered the only stakeholder in an organisation, but this view is outdated. Customers, suppliers, governments and employees are just some examples of Google’s stakeholders that must be considered, alongside shareholders, for an ethically effective managerial plan. Mitchell, Agle, and Wood (1997) develop a framework to categorise stakeholders, finding power, legitimacy and urgency to be three key attributes. In this framework, a stakeholder can be classed from a ‘definitive stakeholder’ to a ‘non-stakeholder’ depending on how much of each attribute they posses (Mitchell, Agle and Wood, 1997), clearly highlighting the vast variety of stakeholders in Google. Managing the interests of such a large group of stakeholders can be challenging, but the way that organisations tackle these issues provides valuable insights into their priorities. An organisation’s corporate governance policy is defined as “a set of relationships between a company’s management, its board, its shareholders and other stakeholders” (OECD principles of corporate governance, 2004), and is key to identifying stakeholder relations. The corporate governance arrangement for Google is contained with its parent company Alphabet. Alphabet was created by Google in late 2015 to facilitate expansion, but as a direct parent company, the ethical direction of their corporate governance policy can be applied to both companies.
Alphabet’s corporate governance guidelines follow the ‘agency theory’ meaning the board of directors is primarily concerned with controlling managerial behaviour to ensure that senior managers act in the best interests of shareholders. Directly mentioned in the opening of the corporate governance guidelines is the boards commitment to “provide structure within which our directors and management can effectively pursue Alphabet’s objectives for the benefit of its stockholders” (Alphabet Investor Relations, 2019). Whilst agency theory is common in modern organisations, it is often criticised for its simplistic view of the individual and it is recommended that other theories be used in conjunction with agency theory to provide a more holistic view. In Google’s case, stewardship theory is also represented, in the guidelines, albeit much less dominant, evidence in the boards belief that “non-independent directors, including current and former members of management” should serve as directors. Both stewardship theory and agency theory are heavily focused on the shareholder, often ignoring the wider scope of stakeholder identified by Mitchell, Agle and Wood (1997). The corporate governance guidelines that Alphabet abides by would be seen as far too narrow by O’Shannassy (2015), as they fail to capture the requirements of key stakeholders such as government, media, consumer advocate groups and the general public finds stewardship+agency bad for governing social companies Mason, Kirkbride and Bryde (2007) find stakeholder theory to be the most effective in governing social enterprises,
Stakeholder theory is an alternative theory that emphasises the effect that organisational decisions have on all stakeholders. This theory is marked by strong stakeholder presence on the board, and incorporates CSR principles into corporate governance guidelines to ensure well represented and ethical leadership from the top. Organisations with the power, influence and reach of Google, an entirely shareholder driven basis is unethical. Without any stakeholder representation on the board (except shareholders) Google’s corporate governance guidelines are lacking the necessary breadth and input to ensure they promote ethical leadership. Furthermore, Google is involved in several current projects directly against the will of employees. Project Maven is one of these projects which involves the development of military AI to assist in drone combat (Houser, 2018). Thousands of employees signed a petition in protest, some resigned and still Google is forging ahead with the project. Employee’s are classed as a ‘definitive stakeholder’ using the framework outlined by Mitchell, Agle, and Wood (1997), and Google’s choice to wilfully prioritise shareholders demonstrates a level of disregard which flies in the face of their own code of conduct, the ‘Don’t be evil’ motto and basic ethical decision making.
Not all believe that de-emphasising ‘Don’t be evil’ in their code of conduct is cause for concern. Some view the change as a step in the right direction. David Mayer wrote an article titled Why Google Was Smart To Drop Its “Don’t Be Evil” Motto where he argues that the motto sets the bar too low. Avoiding unethical behaviour does not constitute ethical behaviour and Mayer argues that for organisations like Google, this is the bare minimum. With this logic, de-emphasising ‘Don’t be evil’ is seen to be a step towards a more optimistic and CSR focused code of conduct. Another argument put forward by Peter Ward (2019) suggest that ditching ‘Don’t be evil’ is a symptom of Google’s growth, inevitable as their transition from startup to global tech titan shifts their ethical goals. These approaches seem tempting on a surface level but fail to consider the code of conduct and corporate governance guidelines. Analysis of the motto without first contextualising it in Google’s deeper ethical principles will only provide superficial conclusions. ‘Don’t be evil’ sits alongside other sweeping statements in Google’s code of conduct concerning their integrity, moral actions and high standards but these are all hollow buzzwords that have little real impact on ethical decision making. In reality, Google’s ethical decision making is based purely on shareholders with little consideration for other stakeholders or higher ethical principles. Without defining the principles they claim to aspire to, arguments considering de-emphasising ‘Don’t be evil’ to be anything but an insignificant change to policy that is essentially a ‘smokescreen’ must be found to be wrong.
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