Trolley Problems as a Service

Consider:

  • Is it ethical to discriminate in whom you will sell to as a business?  What would you do if you found out that the work you do every day was being used to target and kill migrants at the border? 
  • Is it ethical or defensible to pay two people doing the same job different salaries if they live in different locations and have a different cost of living?  What if paying everyone the same rate means you are outcompeted by those who peg salaries to local rates, because they can vastly out-hire you?
  • You’re at the crowded hotel bar after a company-sponsored event, and one of your most valued customers begins loudly venting opinions about minorities in tech that you find alarming and abhorrent.  What responsibility do you have, if any?  How should you react?
  • If we were close to running out of money in the hypothetical future, should we do layoffs or offer pay cuts?

It’s not getting any simpler to live in this world, is it?  💔

Ethical problems are hard.  Even the ones that seem straightforward on the face of them get stickier the closer you look at them.  There are more stakeholders, more caveats, more cautionary tales, more unintended consequences than you can generally see at face value. It’s like fractal hardness, and anyone who thinks it’s easy is fooling themselves.

We’ve been running an experiment at Honeycomb for the past 6 months, where we talk through hypothetical ethical questions like these once a month. Sometimes they are ripped from the headlines, sometimes they are whatever I can invent the night before. I try to send them around in advance. The entire company is invited.**

Honeycomb is not a democracy, nor do I think that would be an effective way to run a company, any more than I think we should design our SDKs by committee or give everyone an equal vote on design mocks.

But I do think that we have a responsibility to act in the best interests of our stakeholders, to the best of our abilities, and to represent our employees. And that means we need to know where the team stands.

That’s one reason. Another is that people make the worst possible decisions when they’re taken off guard, when they are in an unfamiliar situation (and often panicking). Talking through a bunch of nightmare scenarios is a way for us to exercise these decision-making muscles while the stakes are low. We all get to experience what it’s like to hear a problem, have a kneejerk reaction .. then peeling back the onion to reveal layer after layer of dismaying complexities that muddy our snap certainties.

Honeycomb is a pretty transparent company; we believe that companies are created every day by the people who show up to labor together, so those people have a right to know most things. But it’s not always possible or ethically desirable to share all the gritty details that factor into a decision. My hope is that these practice runs help amplify employees’ voices, help them understand the way we approach big decisions, and help everyone make better decisions — and trust each other’s decisions — when things move fast and times get hard.

(Plus, these ethical puzzles are astonishingly fun to work through together. I highly recommend you borrow this idea and try it out at your own company.)

cheers, and please let me know if you do try it ☺️

charity

** We used to limit attendance to the first 6 people to show up, to try and keep the discussion more authentic and less performative. We recently relaxed this rule since it doesn’t seem to matter, peacocking hasn’t really been an issue.

Trolley Problems as a Service

6 thoughts on “Trolley Problems as a Service

  1. Martin Tillter says:

    Great idea and an excellent way to solidify bonds between the team. Do you find the team opens up and offers personal stories into the mix? Or do you keep it mostly non-personal? Thanks for sharing, will give it a try.

  2. David Wright says:

    This is quite remarkable and inspiring. I look forward to reading about how it evolves over time, what changes you decide to make, how decision-making by individuals and groups change, etc.

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