Never has the ethical behavior of business been under closer scrutiny. Advances in technological capabilities, geopolitical issues, the need to reduce environmental impact, and customer expectations all place an onus on every organization to commit to high-standards of ethical behavior. Here Axis CEO Ray Mauritsson and Malin Svensson, Chief People Officer at Axis, discuss some of the challenges, and how the company’s values provide a clear direction for Axis, its employees and partners.
Axis stands proudly behind its vision to build a ‘smarter, safer world’ and presents itself as a company doing business ‘in the right way’. But in a turbulent world and when operating in such a sensitive sector as surveillance, how difficult is it to stay true to your values?
Ray Mauritsson: I actually don’t think it’s difficult to stay true to our values. In fact, I think it’s precisely because we have such a clear set of values that we’re able to deal with external turbulence and any ethical challenges that arise. Axis has been a purpose-driven organization since it was founded, and as we’ve grown we have ensured that our values are understood and consistently adhered to. Our vision of helping to build a smarter, safer world is the north star that keeps us all heading the right direction, and we believe that video surveillance and the increasingly intelligent related technologies are overwhelmingly a force for good.
Malin Svensson: While our vision gives us all a clear direction, we’re careful to say that a ‘smarter, safer world’ isn’t a destination but an ongoing learning journey - there will always be more work to be done. There’s a great deal of detail that sits beneath the vision, and this starts with the four cornerstones of our approach to sustainability: Respect People, Be Trustworthy, Innovate Responsibly, and Protect Our Planet.
Leaning on our cornerstones and core values, our employees and partners are trusted and supported to make the right decisions in the face of challenges that arises from the external environment, be they political, technological, social or economic. So, to reiterate Ray’s comment, our values don’t change in relation to the external environment, they’re part of our DNA.
Axis has grown into a large global organization, and operates in markets around the world with different views of what constitutes ethical behavior. What are the challenges to ensure that everybody in the company reaches the same ethical standards, and how to you overcome these?
Ray Mauritsson: You’re right, in a relatively short time, Axis has grown from a small team in Sweden to thousands of employees in more than 50 countries around the world. That presents challenges, of course, but in the main they relate to communications rather than ethics. What could once be communicated effectively by gathering everyone in the company canteen now needs to be consistently communicated across the globe. But again, our ethical standards don’t change in relation to local market conditions. We’re completely uncompromising in that. While we follow laws, regulations, codes of practice and standards that apply in the countries where we operate, we often also choose to set higher standards for our own business than required by local laws. For clarity the detail is set out in a comprehensive code of conduct which applies not only to employees, but to anyone representing Axis.
Malin Svensson: That’s correct, our code of conduct is a reference for the standards we set for the company, our employees, partners, and anyone else who at any time might represent Axis around the world. The code of conduct uses the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the principles of the UN Global Compact as its foundation, and sets out the detail of Axis as a law-abiding, ethical, and responsible organization and our expectations of our employees and partners in these areas.
From our approach to diversity and inclusion, to zero-tolerance for discrimination, harassment, corruption, and breaches of privacy, the code of conduct leaves nobody in any doubt regarding the standards of behavior we expect. We also undertake training and workshops with employees on topics in the code of conduct which gives them the confidence to live up to these standards.
Despite this, Axis itself has at times faced criticism regarding how its technology has been used. How do you respond to those criticisms?
Malin Svensson: We welcome scrutiny and, when justified, criticism. Both help us examine our business and improve. We recognize that security and surveillance can be a sensitive issue and that ethical questions sometimes arise through how technology is used, if not in the technology itself. We are an innovative technology company that is constantly exploring and learning while developing our technology and products. However, we do look to innovate responsibly, and are very careful before we bring new products and solutions to the market. We only commercialize what we can stand behind ethically and only support customer use cases in line with our ambitious and positive vision.
Ray Mauritsson: Unfortunately, it’s true that surveillance technologies can be used in less desirable ways and – while this is in no way looking to excuse it – there will always be a point at which we cannot control how our technology is employed. To address this as best we can, we have a comprehensive systematic and automatic screening process of partners as well as of end customers that are known to us; screening which includes national and international lists of sanctions and restrictions, including the UN Security Council Consolidated List.
In addition to our screening process, we’re in regular discussion with our partners - and in larger projects also with end customers - to detect any risk of our products being used in a non-intended way. We will also decline to take part in projects that we have reason to believe would violate human rights, and constantly review and improve our processes to fulfil our responsibilities in line with UN recommendations.
We have also started a project to look at the implications of the forthcoming EU directive on Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence. We have identified several areas where adverse human rights impacts are most likely to be present and significant, and how we will mitigate the risks of these. Areas include personal privacy in relation to our products, risks inherent in our supply chain, such as conflict minerals, as well as human rights/privacy during usage of our products and solutions.
How does Axis ensure that the increasingly sophisticated applications developed for its cameras meet the company’s own ethical values?
Ray Mauritsson: The code of conduct and screening processes mentioned earlier are the foundation in ensuring that our employees and our partners – including those developing applications for Axis cameras – commit to the same high ethical standards irrespective of changes to technology and shifts in the marketplace.
When working with analytics and AI, new considerations are necessary, both when developing applications as well as when using those applications. From a development perspective we not only spend a lot of effort ensuring that training data is collected in a legal way and that personal data is protected. We also need to ensure that the data is relevant, represents the use case it aims to solve and is diverse enough for this purpose.
It is important to remove or minimize biases in detections and actions, and to have a transparent discussion around any potential unconscious bias in our applications, ensuring a feedback loop on these efforts. One good guiding principle is to keep the “human in the loop” for decision making, which implies that relevant data is available to an operator deciding on actions following an automated alert.
We only develop commercial offerings for user scenarios we believe in and always communicate their clear intent, and we expect our partners to do the same. With this, and of course legal frameworks like GDPR in mind, we carefully select how and what we bring to the market when it comes to AI-based analytics.
Ultimately, though, Axis is a commercial business with the goal to create profit and value for its parent company. What role does ethics play in the company’s commercial objectives?
Ray Mauritsson: It’s actually a question of trust. People will only do business with those they consider to be trustworthy, and companies will only be commercially successful if people trust them. The ethical principles and behavior of an organization are increasingly influential in building trust between a business and all of its stakeholders, not just its customers. The examples of where damaging the trust between an organization and its customers, partners or shareholders has a direct negative impact on business value and performance are numerous. So, building and maintaining trust is essential.
Malin Svensson: Working with ethics means working with people. Ethics is about how we apply our values in real life, for example how we respond to challenges we are faced with as colleagues, suppliers or customers. We have a passion for technology, for relationships and for doing the right thing at Axis and a culture of openness, honesty, and willingness to share. Our passion and culture and the behaviors it leads to helps us stick to the right ethical principles and, through that, will support us in being a successful long-term partner in our industry.
We’re proud of the standards we set for ourselves, but are never complacent in thinking that the trusted relationships we build both with employees and customers wouldn’t be damaged if we let standards slip. This is why it will always be an area of focus for Axis.
Since 2010, Axis has published an annual Sustainability Report which highlights activities and initiatives related to business conduct, environmental and social responsibility.