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ETHICS

The Techie Image Problem Isn't Just San Francisco's Issue

Business ethicist James O'Toole recently made the case for caring more about your employees' off-the-job behavior.
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Is a company responsible for the off-hours behavior of its employees?

This is the question that James O'Toole, a senior fellow in business ethics at Santa Clara University, posed in an editorial that appeared on strategy+business this week. His thought-provoking post comes at time when many long-time San Francisco residents are clashing with a new breed of affluent, high-skilled tech workers who have moved in next door. While hot-button issues like affordable housing and luxury commuter buses should be of concern to Big Tech, O'Toole says so should their employees' overall behavior towards locals. 

And this isn't just San Francisco's problem, he argues. What happens out West eventually travels to other parts of the country. 

He believes that businesses do in fact need think about their roll in shaping employees' off-the-job behavior. "Admittedly, this is a grey area with little precedent," he wrote. I touched base with O'Toole to delve further into his thoughts. Below is an edited version of our conversation. 

Is the tech industry as a whole starting to develop a bit of a black eye because of what's going on in San Francisco?

At a time when people are losing their jobs, or their incomes are stagnant, there are certain problems that arise when you see other people around you doing very, very well. And that's all part of a much bigger picture of what's happening in this country in terms of polarization, so I don't think there's any one factor here.

But social scientists will tell you that complex social problems never have a single cause. I think that there is a technological, a social, an economic and a psychological aspect to the way people are now rethinking the impacts of the tech world. 

You suggested that in addition to on-the-job ethics and character training sessions, tech companies might want to have similar sessions that address off-the-job behavior. Can you talk about how these might play out? 

I pointed out that it's a tricky area because you have to protect the rights and the privacy of your employees.

But I do think that in the case here in Northern California, there is a growing consensus among local leaders, political leaders people like our former mayor, Willie Brown, who is saying to the tech industry: You're going to have to address your image here. It's really going to hurt you if you don't start paying attention to these questions. 

I think that it would be useful for a lot of these big companies to have some kinds of sessions where they would at least talk to their employees about the impression that they are making on the local community.

Maybe having some community leaders come into some of these companies and talk about those problems. Start a dialog in which companies and the locals can try to find some solutions to these problems before they get any bigger than they are. 

What would be the best-case scenario that comes from a sincere effort to address the issue?

Usually what happens in California happens elsewhere -- very soon if not a couple of years later. If they can address those social economic issues, it's going to lead to a much healthier society and one in which the climate for business is going to be better in the long-term. 

Last updated: Mar 5, 2014

LAURA MONTINI | Staff Writer

Laura Montini is a reporter at Inc. She previously covered health care technology for Health 2.0 News and has served as an associate editor at The Health Care Blog. She lives in San Francisco.




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