Diverse in the metaverse | The ethical implications of work in a digital world

The ethical implications of work in a digital world

By 2026, 25% of people will apparently spend an hour or more in the metaverse each day. What could this hour look like and will we be safe?

Recent firings via Twitter and Zoom are highlighting a worrying trend for employers to conduct the stickier parts of their job behind the safety of a screen, which must fly in the face of improving employee wellbeing.

Although being fired is never going to be pleasant, doing it over a Zoom call is surely akin to dumping someone by text.

While it’s hard to pinpoint which issues will arise once the metaverse becomes part of our daily lives, we have already witnessed how easily real-world problems and issues have seeped into the virtual one.

Virtual copy of the real world

Almost from the start, experiences in virtual and augmented reality were riddled with harassment, hate speech and bullying, while accessibility, identity control and privacy issues also emerged.

We have realised the digital world simply reflects society in the real one, and companies are having a difficult task on their hands creating a safe and inclusive digital world.

But they are trying.

Last year, the Institute of Digital Fashion teamed up with Daz 3D, a leader in 3D technology, to release the world’s first non-binary digital double, and Meta is partnering with diversity-driven groups such as Women in Immersive Tech Europe because they want to address the gender discrepancy. While 48% of gamers identify as female, according to the Entertainment Software Association, this figure is much lower in the metaverse.


Meet my other self

Currently within Meta, there are already over one quintillion (that’s a one followed by 18 zeros) different ways to create an avatar.

Digital architects are scrambling to add even more options such as wheelchairs and even ear implants and tools are being calibrated to translate languages without relying on English data.

All very well for deciding how we choose to present ourselves to our virtual peers, but will the metaverse really be diverse and inclusive when we’re inside it?

Maxine Williams, Chief Diversity Officer for Meta, has stated: "every strategy or feature we add to our metaverse plans considers how people from all backgrounds will interact with it," and she would like to make "every part of the metaverse reflect everyone under the sun."

This raises a trust issue. If everyone can create their own avatar with a quintillion choices in front of them, how would we know the person we are talking to is really them?

Some would say appearances don’t matter.

But in the metaverse this is all we’ll have to go on; a made-up digital image of the other person.

HR pitfalls

So, we’ve put on the headset, created our avatar, and we’re in... what might be the potential pitfalls HR needs to prepare for?

Wearing a mask, goggles or a helmet could heavily impact on sight and audio, and the uniform or suit worn to work might transmute into a very different-looking digital suit.

These areas of physical health will most likely be negatively affected and strict parameters will need to be in place to protect employees.

Research also suggests the use of VR could result in physiological and cognitive impairments as well as changing behavioural and social dynamics.

These are scary ethical implications.

Even more frightening to consider is that biometric data could be farmed and sold to data mining companies. The need to wear technology in order to access technology could see the rise of behavioural control.

This is the stuff of science fiction at present, yet HR will need to prepare for disgruntled employees having a bad day in the metaverse.

Prepare and facilitate

Ash Pal, Chief Disruptive Office of Bloody IT, says HR should act as a facilitator to understand unmet needs, and explains: "That could be to convene a group of internal and external subject matter experts in ethics, data, from diversity groups, and technology to understand what the issues are for that organisation and how to get started."

Immersion is the best education, according to Pal, who suggest companies draw up "either a technology-related rotation or placement to grow new skills for leaders and HR."

However, Dawn Moore, Group People Director at Murphy Group, sees the metaverse becoming just one part of HR’s engagement portfolio, "rather than its sole method of operation."

She believes a large part of HR’s role is both personal engagement and ensuring inclusivity and accessibility to all.

"There could be many advantages to doing more in the metaverse;" Moore explains, "engaging people more efficiently through technology, holding events such as onboarding at a time and in a virtual place which helps people balance work and life better."

Realtime Recruitment

Recruiting in the metaverse would also showcase the importance a company puts on innovation and would ensure that "the next generation of talent can see the business they work for is moving with the times," according to Moore.

Traditional hiring methods might be seen as antithetical to diversity as they usually focus on getting more of the same but some companies are jumping off the career conveyor belt in favour of a more organic process.

Start-ups in insurtech or fintech are usually packed with quirky individuals looking to make a difference instead of their more traditional ‘male pale stale’ counterparts at older companies because new industries understand the implications of recruiting from a wider pool gene.

Pal is in favour of a more radical approach to attract the less conventional members of society, referring to current recruitment processes as ‘factory farming’. He strongly believes in introducing wider skillsets to the organisation.

"These are people who might be seen as the misfits and weirdos, possibly even people who are failing in other roles, or may be coming out of a period of struggle. By and large, technical skillsets can be learned, but mindsets can’t be. Most people who successfully come through a digital transformation come with a different mentality and that’s the critical differentiator."

As Pal concludes: "HR isn’t the subject matter expert but it can assemble groups of internal and external experts to explore ethical issues with the metaverse."

We won’t have to pretend to be the experts on all things digital, yet future-proofing our organisations by leaning on the digital experts and transferring their knowledge into the organisation will play a huge part in the HR role of the future.

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