Engage Next-Generation Leaders in Responsible Tech Efforts
Think back to your first day in your current job. You likely received a new computer or laptop, connected your new email account with a mobile device, got access to enterprise applications, and speed-read your way through a stack of corporate policies.
Now consider the young people about to enter the corporate workforce for the first time: the ones who grew up with the nearly non-stop screen time, who met people from around the world on gaming and entertainment platforms amidst endless misinformation and verbal abuse, and who felt the judgement and pressure of social media during their most formative years. How can we bring these future leaders into an increasingly online work environment with a sense of safety and belonging? How can we guide them to foster these feeling among others as they ultimately become leaders themselves?
Digitally Savvy and Concerned About the World
It’s impossible to sum up all the ways that the next generation of workers will be different than their predecessors, but thinking about their likely experiences can help anticipate potential strengths and weakness and can foster empathy with how they’ll respond to corporate environments. For one, they’ve generally had access to amazingly sophisticated and well-connected technology since childhood, including the iPhone (first introduced 16 years ago) and YouTube (17 years ago). But along with these experiences came almost constant exposure to new types of risks and harms, including misinformation about politics and abuse from anonymous trolls in gaming environments and social media sites.
These young adults have also had to navigate personal and complicated data privacy issues at a young age, with some of their most intimate personal information tracked and shared, often without their prior knowledge or permission. And they’ve faced difficult ethical situations with little precedent, such as what to make of election and pandemic misinformation, how to handle constant surveillance in online learning environments, and most recently, whether there’s an ethical way to use generative AI engines like ChatGPT to help with homework.
All of these tech developments have also helped young people stay up to date with what’s going on around the world, and their access to information and global discussions have served to amplify social and environmental concerns. Movements like the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, MeToo and BlackLivesMatter demonstrated the power of digitally-connected social protest. But at the same time, the continuous string of stories and videos of political, environmental and refugee crises around the world serve as reminders of human suffering. Likely in response, polls repeatedly show that new entrants into the workforce have higher expectations for corporate social and environmental responsibility.
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Bringing it Into the Workplace
In my work at Avanade, I’ve conducted scores of workshops, hackathons, discussions and projects with early-career business and technology professionals. I’ve also worked with students and interns through our STEM Scholarship program and served as a mentor through various industry and academic programs. The drive and determination of these young individuals to make a positive impact on the world inspires me. At the same time I’ve seen an urgent need for practical ways to harness this energy.
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What would happen if every member of your team came to work focused on finding solutions and creating better results?
Certainly, there are many potential paths for them, but my specific focus is in the context of digital technology and its impact on individuals, society and the environment. So the question is how best to harness the digital fluency of these future leaders and guide their engagements with technology in a way that acknowledges and supports their drive toward social consciousness. In short, how can we guide them toward responsible tech and innovation?
In my experience, the following are the best ways to make sure new recruits and future leaders engage with responsible tech initiatives and practices:
- Demonstrate authenticity. New recruits will likely have done their research to learn what your company cares about — your ESG report, vision and value statements, and possibly addresses from your CEO. To prove these words mean something, show how they guide policies and practices for developing, procuring, implementing and using technology. If the company touts sustainability practices, show how you favor energy-efficient software and cloud infrastructure. If the company values inclusion and diversity, show how you’re fighting harmful AI bias and prioritizing digital accessibility.
- Share the load. A small but growing contingent of companies employ teams focused on responsible tech, digital ethics, ethical AI or similar functions. But responsible tech is everyone’s job to some extent (just as it’s everyone’s job to follow good finance and HR practices). Whatever role they’re in, find ways for your new recruits to engage in responsible tech efforts, for example by asking customer service reps to report on customers’ biggest privacy concerns (in order to improve policies and communication) or asking the marketing team to review how their online campaigns might be inappropriately targeting and benefiting people according to race, gender, age or other personal traits.
- Connect them with solutions they care about. There are so many ways to contribute to more responsible tech, it’s often difficult — especially for a new employee — to figure out where to start. As much as possible, create opportunities for employees to engage on issues they care about. For example, connect people who care about social justice with efforts to reduce harmful bias in hiring algorithms, or connect people who care about the environment with efforts to develop and procure more sustainable software.
- Listen. More than anything else, give your early-career colleagues space to voice their hopes, priorities, questions and concerns related to responsible tech. Remember, their experiences with digital technologies give them insights your older colleagues might not have, and they can likely help improve the way your company engages online with customers and prospects. Invite them into design sessions and focus groups, provide channels for them to ask questions, and demonstrate changes to products, services and practices based on their input.
- Recommend resources. Your company may still be in the early phases of its responsible business or responsible tech journey, so don’t be shy about steering new colleagues toward online classes, certification programs or industry associations that might interest them. Not only will this help them engage in something they care about, your company may be able to mature its approach faster based on their training.
Again, new recruits may have many options to capitalize on their tech experience while contributing to social causes that concern them. However, given how pervasive digital technologies are across all industries, responsible tech is a prime candidate for engagement. Test out a few ideas above in your next check-in call with a new employee or potential recruit and see how they respond. The discussion alone might be enough to make your company stand out from others.
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About the Author
As global lead for digital ethics at Avanade, Chris McClean is responsible for driving the company’s digital ethics fluency and internal change and for advising clients on their digital ethics journey. Prior to Avanade, Chris spent 12 years at Forrester Research, leading the company’s analysis and advisory for risk management, compliance, corporate values, and ethics.