Be careful what you wish for by Mike Tuffrey

27 June 2024

Tags: Code of Ethics , Ethical Values

Way back when I first started working with companies, they would insist that their commitment to responsible and ethical business was in their very DNA, a core part of their history and culture. And in case there was any doubt, that spirit was usually encapsulated in a short written code of business principles and ethics.

Even then, however, doubts were creeping in. One of my first client projects was commissioned by the head office of one global company, to take the dozen essential statements in their code and check out actual practice in their operating companies worldwide.

“About this commitment to respecting difference and valuing people for their abilities,” I’d ask, “how come your executive team are all men?” (We didn’t use the phrase unconscious bias back then.) “And how do people raise any concerns?” I’d enquire. “My door is always open.” the local managing director would say, noting without irony that none had availed themselves of the opportunity.

Not all big firms were that well-meaning. Some would cut corners and a few were downright dishonest. Virtually all had an in-built tendency to flatter, in the accounts they gave themselves as much as to their stakeholders.

The evidence said something else, however. So, scepticism was rising, along with mounting levels of distrust. I and plenty of others supported moves towards a systematic approach to corporate governance, accountability and reporting, with processes around ethical behaviour mainstreamed.

Even so, I still argued that the approach should be ‘inside out’, not imposed ‘outside in’, and – the flip side of that - for corporate communication to switch from default ‘transmit’ mode to ‘receive’ as well, to use old wireless terminology.

Fast forward to today, voluntary reporting frameworks proliferate, with some now quasi-mandatory. An alphabet soup is coming to the boil – think CSRD, ESRS, TCFD, TNFD, ISSB, SASB, GRI, CDP, IFRS S1 & S2 et al. As a direct result, executive responsibility is shifting to legal and compliance functions, and the mindset towards doing only the minimum necessary. Commitments are scaled back to what is achievable lest we be castigated for falling short; ambition is curtailed; the space to fail (and thus to learn) is shrinking.

Memo to younger self: be careful what you wish for.

What is the answer? We can’t go back to those naïve, more trusting days. But we can ensure that compliance isn’t the tail that wags the proverbial dog.

It all starts with purpose, as the IBE’s Business Ethics Framework makes clear, with values embedded in corporate culture and lived out in behaviours, consistently demonstrated by all levels of leadership. That must be codified, with a good mix of Do and Don’t requirements, robust management processes that monitor and intervene to correct when necessary, and above all a vigorous Speak Up ethos.

Easy to say, and hard to do, especially faced with governments saying, ‘here are the rules, make sure you comply’. Simply following the letter of the law feels a lot easier and looks safer in the risk register. However, it won’t rebuild trust over the long term, inspire loyalty from colleagues and customers, or stretch performance above the trend line. In ethics and wider, we need to retain the space to make genuine choices, to exercise good judgement about right and wrong decisions.


Mike Tuffrey
Mike Tuffrey


Mike joined the Board of Trustees in July 2017.

A chartered accountant by profession, Mike’s career has covered all three sectors, private, public and voluntary.

In business, Mike is co-founder of Corporate Citizenship, an international management consultancy specialising in sustainability and corporate responsibility, where he advises clients on sustainable business strategies. He began his career as a trainee at KPMG, having graduated from Durham University with an economics degree.

In public service, Mike has been local councillor and council leader, and served for a decade on the London Assembly where he was appointed by Mayors Livingstone and Johnson to the London Sustainable Development Commission. Currently he is treasurer of the New Economic Foundation and chair of The Restart Project, a social enterprise helping people take action to reduce electronic waste.

Previously he worked as director of a national charity, Action Resource Centre, now part of Business in the Community. Married with a family, Mike lives in south London and blogs regularly at

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