Bringing business ethics front and centre

The scandal engulfing FIFA in recent weeks has served as an important reminder about the crucial role business ethics play in sustaining business success, as well as the hugely harmful repercussions that follow when companies get it wrong.

Business ethics are often overlooked and under-resourced, losing out to the ‘new’ – to the next big idea – yet a high-profile sustainability campaign is worth nothing if corruption, bribery or human rights abuses are discovered in an organisation’s operations.

‘Rogue employees’, let alone endemic corruption, can have a devastating impact on an organisation’s long-term success, inflicting huge damage on its reputation and eroding trust. Edelman’s 2015 Trust Barometer found that trust in business now sits below the 50% mark in most countries around the world. And after the FIFA revelations, a YouGov poll found only 1% of Britons thought that FIFA required no reform: 46% thought it should be scrapped and 34% voted for reform from within.

So, where to start?

Setting a policy around a code of conduct is a natural starting point. Policies provide clarity around the way in which you want to do business; the processes you’ve put in place to support ethical decision-making; and the consequences of misconduct. But they cannot work magic alone. A policy is a starting point, not an end point. After all, FIFA had an Ethics Committee, a code of conduct, and a core principle of ‘integrity and ethical behaviour’…

Policies need to be embedded in every level of the organisation, checked, measured, and amended as necessary: seen not as permanent works of art, but as fluid guideposts which can adapt to new environments.

Training is a great way of starting to embed your policy, but make it imaginative, engaging, and interactive. And don’t see it as a one-off process. In a previous company, I had to sit through 10 online training courses when I first joined, which set out the legal, and moral, frameworks the company operated within. I then had to refresh the material annually. That kind of commitment is a powerful sign your company takes responsible business seriously and the training provided a useful, ongoing compass for decision-making.

Once the training is over, talk to people! Communication around business ethics should be an ongoing conversation, not a podium lecture. Get creative: you don’t have to be constrained by the punitive language of compliance – the issues around ethics can be fascinating, and covered in a positive way. As Katherine Bradshaw, author of an Institute of Business Ethics (IBE) report around communicating ethical values internally puts it: “…you will often hear people talking about ethical issues without even realising it; issues of fairness, trust, conflicts, and other dilemmas.”

Take a multi-channel approach: along with the intranet and internal communications messages, consider your company’s social network, videos, apps, and win hearts and minds with powerful story-telling. Another recent IBE report even proposes segmenting messages according to generational groups. Their research highlights four generations in the workplace and suggests that each has shaped its own ethical standards. Where Millennials might respond well to opportunities for interaction in compliance training programmes; Generation X-ers need to know that advice is available; and leading with messaging from their immediate hierarchy is best for Boomers and Traditionalists.     

Policies of course also need to be modelled. Research from Rotterdam School of Management  indicates that middle managers will ‘mirror top management’s bad behaviours, regardless of how ethical they are an individual’.

Last, but not least, find imaginative ways to keep the momentum going. Reputation is built, brick by brick, over years – and operating fairly and ethically – is a critical part of that. We live in an open, transparent society which is rightly unforgiving of corrupt or unethical companies: public retribution is swift, and the consequences can be far-reaching. Of course business ethics programmes can’t guarantee immunity from scandal, but they’re a pretty good place to start.

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