Sarah Drinkwater
Director, Beneficial Technology

Employee Perks Don't Cut It: Tech Companies Must Take Bold Action Before Losing Tech Talent

In the past year, we’ve seen moments of productive dissent within the largest technology companies. Take the Amazon climate change letter where 65,000 corporate and tech employees demanded a better plan to reduce the company’s carbon footprint.

Or the mass Google Walkout, where more than 20,000 employees and contract workers from across the globe united in protest of the company’s history of payouts to executives accused of sexual harassment and unfair treatment of contract workers. It’s been hard to know for sure whether such movements are led by fringe groups or if employees at large are increasingly concerned with the ethical direction of their companies — until now.

This week, our partners at Doteveryone, a leading think tank advocating for responsible tech, released a new report, People, Power and Technology: The Tech Workers’ View. The report surveyed 1,010 tech workers in the UK and reveals that over a quarter of respondents (28 percent) have seen decisions made in business strategy, design or marketing that could be harmful for people and society and, of those, almost one in five (18 percent) went on to leave their job as a result. This number rises to 27 percent among machine learning/artificial intelligence (ML/AI) engineers.

The UK and Europe are often canaries in the coal mine on the issue of tech platforms and their power, from antitrust regulations to privacy protection with GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). It’s time tech companies in Silicon Valley and beyond take notice. For CEOs and founders, the message is clear: sort out your values and make sure your cultures and products reflect them, or you will face a recruitment and retention risk. Tech workers want more conscious, responsible business practices — and they’re willing to walk if that need goes unmet.

Simply put, there are more options than ever for this talent pool. In the last decade, the landscape has changed for workers at the largest technology companies. Classic tech benefits, like free lunch or remote work, once helped put them ahead of the pack. However, the changing landscape and intense competition for talent across industry requires companies go above and beyond. It’s a moment of reckoning for the entire industry.

What’s more, the increased skepticism of the tech industry overall has created ripple effects for employers, employees, policymakers, and society. The view that “techies are the new bankers” continues to gain traction. Years of growing public distrust over outsized influence and undersized tax bills have led to questions about the role tech products play in society and how to limit harm and increase benefits. The sea of tech-branded T-shirts that once flooded the streets of San Francisco has slowed to a dribble — company logos no longer serve as the badge of honor they once did.

Increasingly, we’re seeing companies like Glitch, Buffer, and Basecamp define themselves in opposition to FAANG companies (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google) by transparently sharing revenue stats or setting inclusive values.

All of this said, there are reasons to be optimistic. In Doteveryone’s survey, 81 percent of respondents believed what they’re working on will benefit society, and what most excites them are the socially impactful developments in their line of work, such as using artificial intelligence for healthcare.

Interestingly, the survey shows that the youngest talent group, 18- to 24-year-olds, are more likely to spot ethical challenges than their older colleagues and expressed having a much stronger appetite for regulation. The attitudes and preferences of this up-and-coming talent will be essential to charting a new path for tech.

Leaders and organizations that can meet this demand for responsible tech through better business models and fair and transparent practices will have a huge competitive advantage. One place to start is making sure your company has accessible and effective resources and tools to help individuals, teams, and companies behave more ethically. More than two-thirds of survey respondents said they would like more opportunities to assess the impact of the tech they’re building — beyond relying on the internet or their individual moral compasses to guide their decisions.

Last year, we at the Tech and Society Solutions Lab at Omidyar Network co-created the EthicalOS to help tech product developers foresee and pre-emptively address the potential downsides of the tech they are creating. We’re also proud to have funded Doteveryone, which is trialling important and timely work in this space. Looking ahead, we’re excited to have more initiatives in the pipeline to give practical guidance and create communities of practice across industry.

We look forward to continuing our collaboration with Doteveryone in the months ahead, including identifying opportunities to advance this important work in the United States.

Through these efforts and practical research such as what Doteveryone has released this week, we’re confident that the tech industry can and will reach its potential to be a force for good.

As founder and executive chair Martha Lane Fox adds in the report, “responsibility is neither magic nor art.” Responsible technology should be made by design, together.

Sarah Drinkwater
is director of the Tech and Society Solutions Lab at Omidyar Network, which is part of the organization’s growing efforts to mitigate the unintended consequences of technology on our social fabric and to ensure products are responsibly designed and brought to market. Sarah previously was a long-time Google executive and served as the head of Campus London, Google’s first physical start-up hub offering innovative education programs, a work and event space, and access to a vibrant start-up community.

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