The Ethics of Dissent in the Workplace

Dissent is a matter of personal choice, but choosing when and how to speak out need not happen in isolation

5 min read

Illustration: Adrià Fruitós

THE ENGINEER’S PLACEA few years ago, while teaching an undergraduate class on the history of nuclear weapons, an electrical engineering student of mine made an unexpected decision. Having learned in class about the costs and benefits of the role of engineers in the creation of nuclear weapons, the student decided to avoid altogether work on classified military technologies. 

There was only one problem with my student’s decision. Lockheed Martin, the large military contractor, had already hired him. Expecting him to graduate in a couple of months, the company assigned him to work on new “classified” routers for computer networks. The devices essentially allowed the system to spy on data traffic. As a final step before starting his job, my student was supposed to undergo a security investigation. Only days before interviews began with his family and friends, my student told the company to cancel the inquiry.  

Then he chose to look elsewhere for work and on graduation he found a job he says will bring his work as an EE in closer alignment with his personal values.

My student’s journey isn’t unusual. For complex reasons, more EEs are shunning jobs that don’t square with their values, or are openly prodding their employers to adopt practices more in line with their preferences. 

One cause of the new restiveness among EEs is generational. Some younger engineers, especially in computing fields, explicitly follow a dictum made popular by Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin. They once bluntly declared, “Don’t Be Evil” and incorporated the slogan into Google’s corporate code (in 2018 the company dropped the language from the preface to its code of conduct but the wording remains in the document). 

The strong market for engineers also creates more room for dissent, since for many getting another job is relatively easy. Besides, some younger engineers fear becoming trapped in what amounts to a secret career, losing job mobility and earning power.

Another factor: engineering curriculums at universities, including my own at Arizona State University, put more emphasis on ethics, values and “sustainable” practices than in the past. 

As a result of these forces, more EEs are breaking with the field’s traditional allegiance to management by dissenting to their bosses internally or, more dramatically, publicly airing “honest disagreements” with management.

In June 2018, Microsoft employees critical of a contract between the company and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) wrote to Satya Nadella, the company’s chief, accusing him and other Microsoft executives of “abdicating” ethical responsibility. In October, of this year, employees of Microsoft’s GitHub unit lodged the same protests over a GitHub contract with ICE. 

Last year Google employees revolted over the company’s plans to design a censored version of its search engine for the Chinese market codenamed “Project Dragonfly.” Reportedly more than a thousand Google employees signed a public letter of complaint, and the company dropped the project. 

Not all dissenters are liberals. In 2017, a Google software engineer named James Damore stirred controversy by internally circulating a memo complaining that “an ideological echo chamber” prevented “some ideas” about diversity from being “honestly discussed.” Among those, Damore insisted, was the possibility that the low number of women in technical positions at Google was the result biological differences and not gender stereotyping. When Damore’s memo went public (and viral), Google fired him. 

No matter the source or political complexion, some rebel engineers choose to move on. While working at Google, Tristan Harris claimed the company purposely designed systems that promote digital addictions, or intense cravings to remain online. In 2013, he shared with coworkers a presentation entitled, “A Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect Users’ Attention.” Harris suggested that Google, Apple and Facebook should “feel an enormous responsibility” to make sure humanity doesn't spend its days immersed in digital experiences. Tens of thousands of Google employees reportedly viewed the presentation, and debated internally the company’s responsibilities towards society. 

Harris no longer works at Google and now, as the director of an advocacy group named Center for Humane Technology, actively campaigns against the power of “big tech” to colonize the minds of its users. 

Dissent doesn’t only occur within the ranks of “big tech” companies. Earlier this year, an engineer at Boeing, Curtis Ewbank, filed a formal “whistleblower” complaint against his employer. In the complaint, according to the Seattle Times newspaper, Ewbank claims that Boeing blocked safety improvements in the company’s now-grounded 737 Max airplane in order to reduce costs. The 737 Max has crashed twice in recent years, killing hundreds. Promised fixes to the airplane haven’t yet come, and in October Boeing stripped its chief executive of his chairman title over the continuing controversy. 

The dissenting impulse among EEs is closely tied to attitudes towards professionalization. Engineers are sometimes caught between twin ideals—between the independence and self-governance afforded, say, physicians and lawyers, and the view advanced by many corporate employers that engineers are employees who must follower orders, so that those who resist management dictates are guilty of insubordination and disloyalty. 

The tension between independence and obligations to employers has shaped the rise of engineering as a profession.  In a path breaking study first published in 1971, Revolt of the Engineers: Social Responsibility and the American Engineering Professionhistorian Edwin Layton recounted of the political activities of engineers in the 1920s and 1930s. In a preface to the book in 1986, Layton expressed the hope that engineers can ultimately become a “loyal opposition” within American business, neither uncritically following management nor instinctively dismissive of the justifiable demands of large corporate employers. 

Describing his vision of an engineering field poised between autonomy and obligation, Layton wrote, “We need social mechanisms that will enable engineers to function as a ‘loyal opposition.’ Any such measures must recognize not only the right and duty of all citizens to defend the public interest but also the legitimate loyalties necessary to the functioning of our complex modern society. This will involve distinguishing between legitimate action in the public interest and the betrayal of the truth of colleagues and employers.”

Dissent is a matter of personal choice, of course, but choosing when to speak out, how and why, need not happen in isolation. Professional organizations often have their own codes of ethics for “professional activities.” This includes IEEE, which is currently accepting comments on proposed changes to its code of ethics until 10 April 2020.

Codes of ethics are viewed by some cynics as irrelevant, a kind of wishy “boilerplate” that many practitioners ignore. That’s an unfortunate reputation because, broadly viewed across medicine, law, finance and other professions, these codes tend to promote some common practices.

First, ethical approaches should allow for honest criticism of a professional’s work. Professionals should also acknowledge and correct errors. Codes also tend to encourage reflection on the societal implications of a professional’s actions. Finally, professionals should be protected, if not supported, when they publicly complain about unaddressed problems that may cause widespread harm.

While disclosure sounds straight-forward and logical, what to disclose, when and to whom sometimes sparks bitter debates. Like many ethical and professional challenges, unbending rules often don’t work well in the “real” world. Flexibility, however, can easily spawn inconsistencies that then raise doubts about the fairness of rules designed to address these challenges. The only certainty in the new age of engineering dissent: more complicated challenges are likely to arise.

Circumstances and situations bear heavily on choices no matter how technically-objective or logically clear they may seem to be at first. In the end, a sensible engineer ought to seek to balance the needs of his or her primary organization (whether a formal employers or a shorter-term contractor) with the dictates of personal conscience, values and preferences. 

Easier said than done!

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