Ethics & Business: Time to End the Ethics of Osmosis

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  • The present COVID19 pandemic places a welcome spotlight on ethics
  • Due to bogus belief that ethics is somehow just a private matter, applying ethics in business is thought reducible to mere adherence to regulations
  • Ethics Training today is exactly where Manual Handling training was 40 years ago

Despite the fact that references to ethics abound in the literature produced by businesses of all hues, the concept itself remains stubbornly misunderstood and poorly applied. Underpinning the important and often pressurized work carried out in the business arena are key-value terms such as trust, respect, care, honesty, and integrity. Yet, all too often these terms are bandied about by companies in a way that offers no clarity to consumers or regulators as to how precisely these values are used to mold an authentic culture of doing the right thing. 

There is something fundamentally missing from within the world of business – professional ethicists! What’s bizarre about the present situation is, though it’s inconceivable to imagine a financial audit being signed-off if it were performed by, let’s say, an HR or Sales’ manager (i.e. someone without the requisite accountancy qualifications), non-professional ethicists are routinely encouraged to take on roles with titles such as Head of Ethics, CSR Manager, Ethics Officer, ESG Manager, Ethics Board Member, etc. without ever having formally studied the discipline.

There is a bogus belief espoused by some that ethics is somehow just a private matter, something we either pick up, almost through a process of osmosis, or we do not along life’s journey. And because of this obtuse notion applying ethics in business is thought reducible to mere adherence to regulations, legal statutes, or compliance guidelines. As a result of such thinking, the business world has over the years found itself in various highly damaging ethical scandals. It should be stated unambiguously – being law-abiding does not of itself constitute being wholly ethical.

To change matters we must remember that the word ethics simply means custom, practice, or character. That is a consistent mode of behavior or a characteristic manner of acting. It is for this reason that actions and attitudes we would now consider grossly unethical, such as apartheid, were for centuries both legal and ethical as they directly reflected the prevailing customs. At the end of the day, what is construed as ethical depends first and foremost on who is defining the terms and how many supporters s/he has. Regulation alone is a blunt, outmoded, and impotent instrument to secure ethical behavior – culture drives ethics and ethics drives culture, not laws.

Manual Handling Training – the Forerunner

Leaders within the business must appreciate that ethics is mutable and, as such, can and should be updated and utilized to enhance levels of trust and build sustainable reputational capital. By understanding this they will also come to recognise the distinct competitive advantages to be had by those companies who can clearly demonstrate how their ethics are managed, monitored and developed over time.

Unfortunately Ethics Training today is exactly where Manual Handling training was 40 years ago. Skepticism abounded then from employees with many years of experience who were suddenly being told how to correctly lift and load boxes or how to carry heavy suitcases. Staff who had worked as baggage handlers for decades (including my own uncle) were now being instructed to look again at the very basics of how they worked. Custom and practice had to be overhauled and cries of ‘leave well enough alone’ fell on deaf ears.

Of course Manual Handling training has, fortunately, become accepted as an essential legal and ethical tool to help guarantee the safety of staff and customers. Ethics Training is also about what we do and how we do it and over the coming years it too will be embraced by progressive companies keen to keep the tangible rewards of promoting themselves as sincerely ethical. Merely reactively responding to regulations will be considered backward and unprofessional. Into the future companies will have to show how their ethical pronouncements are made-up of more than saccharine sounding terms but are, in fact, conduits for protecting ethical behaviour through defined core values, meaningful codes of conduct and concrete mission statements.

Lessons from the COVID19 Crisis 

The present COVID19 pandemic places a welcome spotlight on ethics. Questions are being asked on an on-going basis of frontline staff in relation to who should receive priority treatment and why? Ancillary workers must respond to queries about how to protect the essential food, medicine and PPE supply chains? And more broadly, there’s a genuine spirit of solidarity which has come to the fore across many of our communities (including the business community) which should not be lost from what we hope will be a ‘post-coronavirus’ world. From a commercial perspective, what the COVID19 crisis illustrates is that it is not only prudent but profitable to make your values both concrete and visible.

It has been long understood in areas of business that are most firmly ethical, such as CSR, that the way you make profits is more important than philanthropic giving itself. In a similar vein, the sudden and universal trumpeting of virtues such as cooperation, courage, and generosity though laudable, is so only when these virtues are mirrored in the cultures of those businesses now promoting them. Placing a newfound emphasis on engaged values such as respect will only be considered sincere once it can be shown there are structures in place to certify this re-focusing is sustained in the long-term. In time, if organizations do not facilitate Ethics Training, their ways of working are almost certainly doomed to return to old patterns, established culture, to paraphrase Peter Drucker, will eat strategy (and nouvelle practices) for breakfast!

Professionals in business must have the foresight to recognize that our present changed focus during the COVID19 crisis is an opportune moment to distill the core values of their often stale codes of conduct and transform them into dynamic cultural change. To achieve this they must make certain that verifiable practices are in place which allows ethics to be taken out of the realm of just compliance and governance concerns and be put front-and-center within their organizations by working through processes such as a) the 5 Stages of an Ethics Review; b) designing an individual Organisational Ethics Pyramid, and c) guaranteeing Measurability Matrixes exist so as to monitor critical ethical data. Initiating these processes will help reinforce the fact when it comes to ethics not only can the leaders of these businesses talk the talk, they can also walk the walk.

The COVID19 pandemic epitomises the need to understand ethics as active and changeable. Integrity we should recall requires no rules; in fact, the more corrupt an organisation is the more regulations they are likely to have: Laws (attempt) to control what we do, ideals (culture) organise who we are. Trust, integrity and respect are critical values within business and meaningful only when companies grasp the significance they play in building loyalty, increasing reputational capital and enhancing goodwill from customers, the media and regulators alike. Ensuring a genuinely ethical culture within your organisation helps to guide business professionals’ actions, distinguishes them from competitors and creates authentic buy-in from all. It is also, the right thing to do.

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