The only way is ethics...

Written by
Changeboard Team

31 Jan 2012

31 Jan 2012 • by Changeboard Team

On a slippery slope?

As the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics in the UK continues its painstaking work, our eyes are being opened to the seedy journalists’ world of ‘hacking’, ‘blagging’ and ‘pinging’. And with media moguls now in the spotlight – the hunters have become the hunted.

When Rupert Murdoch admitted that his day at the Inquiry had been: 'the humblest day of my life”, I didn’t discern a massive wave of sympathy coming his way (!), but before we gloat too much at his discomfort, we need to acknowledge that questions of ethics are questions for us all. Can we say, hand on heart, that we consistently choose the ethically and morally defensible over the expedient and financially beneficial?

We may not go as far as some of the more dubious practices of the press, but none of us are immune from making ethically questionable decisions that we would rather not see publicised. The glee of interrogating MP's that the Murdoch’s were getting a good pasting has to be somewhat tempered by their own recent record on expenses. But how can we be sure that our own organisation isn't about to slide down its own ethically slippery slope?

Morally or ethically defensible?

It is easy to be complacent about how ethically vulnerable we may be and how guilty we are of fuzzy ethical thinking, both as individuals and as organisations. No function is immune from sidelining the ethical dimensions of its decisions. From procurement to product development to marketing to HR to finance – we seek affirmative answers to the questions:

  • 'Is it legal?'
  • 'Is it following agreed company policy?'
  • ‘Can we get away with it?’

And if we get the answers we want to hear, it is easy to ignore the crucial question 'Is it morally or ethically defensible to our customers, our staff and the general public?’. This is perhaps where the UK MP’s expenses issue went pear-shaped.

Many professions have their own professional codes of conduct and the UK’s CIPD is set to publish a revised code for HR early in 2012. Having had a sneak preview, I think it will be helpful. But I don’t think professional codes are enough in themselves. Overarching standards and responsibilities are needed if corporate ethical coherency is to be attained.

Ethical codes

This throws up two further questions: who is responsible for setting and maintaining ethical standards in our organisations? And, is it even possible in a society that draws its morals from such a wide variety of religious and philosophical sources (and none), to agree a shared moral and ethical code?

The question 'who is responsible?' could simply be answered: 'we all are!' But it is disturbing how easy it can be, under pressure to conform from those around us, to make decisions we may later regret.

The famous (and ethically questionable) psychological experiments in which volunteers were (apparently) given power to reward or punish subjects with differing levels of electric shocks up to a potentially fatal level showed just how far human beings are willing to go when instructed by others to do so.

The pressure of the context can sometimes feel overwhelming. For this reason alone, someone, somewhere needs to take organisational responsibility for ensuring ethical standards are widely known and widely practised.

Widely acceptable ethical code

Not many organisations have defined such a clear role for upholding ethical and moral standards as my Islamic clients. With Islamic principles as their touchstone, Shariah compliance committees exist to oversee financial, operational (and sometimes behavioural) activities to ensure they comply with the values and tenets of Islam.

Some would argue against the practicality of such a watchdog in a multi-faith and no-faith environment. But somewhere, ethical standards need to be defined if an organisation is to protect itself from a potentially catastrophic ethical failure.

This leads us on to question of whether a common ethical code is viable in a multi-faith and no-faith environment. Seligman and Peterson’s (2004) research identified six virtues that seemed to be shared with almost every philosophy and creed globally and a further 24 strengths through which they tend to be expressed. These could prove a useful starting point for developing a widely acceptable ethical code.

HR & OD to shape ethics

I believe that HR & OD professionals can take a positive lead in this area.

Here are five things we can do.

1. Clear up our own fuzzy ethical thinking and develop our own personal codes. What are the lines that we personally commit never to cross? (see Howard & Korver’s 2008 book: Ethics for the real world. Harvard Business Press, for some great examples).

2. Help define a socially and ethically desirable collective purpose for our organisations above and beyond the profit motive (see Johnson & Johnson’s credo at for a great example of such a statement).

3. Encourage espoused values to be lived and not just laminated by modelling them in our own practice, insisting that all senior managers do the same.

4. Ensure that values-based action and behaviour is recognised and rewarded – and not just maximising profit.

5. Equip and empower managers with the mindset and skillset to be able to make ethically sound decisions in their areas of responsibility, taking them beyond a focus on mere legal compliance.

Mindsets of responsible managers

Ongoing research at Roffey Park suggests most individuals and organisations would benefit from working on all the above and we are aiming to publish a report on best practice in Spring 2012, including the mindset and skill-set of 'responsible' managers, to help strengthen organisations in these issues.

In conclusion, I believe that both the press standards issue and the fallout from the banking crisis has prompted a growing social movement. It's a movement that expects more from the big players in our society – that the moral and ethical dimensions of business must be given a much higher profile than they have had to date. I believe that HR & OD senior professionals need to step up and lead on this issue.