The theme of this year’s Global Ethics Day is Empowerment. For a topic where the language can sometimes feel a bit abstract, maybe this day can serve as inspiration for us to be brave about the importance of the work that we do.
Ethics is about how we make decisions about what is right and wrong. Our recent board guidance exists to support boards in working through what they need to have in place to be confident that they are doing all they can to build an ethical culture and support people in the organisation to make ethical decisions. Every day, business ethics practitioners offer advice and support, training, respond to Speak Ups and do everything they can to support senior leaders in doing the right thing. Business leaders work through ethical dilemmas as a core part of their role. Often, they get them right. Sometimes they get it wrong, and the consequences of mistakes and misjudgements are what hit the newspapers.
Ethical decision-making is about having all the insight and information required, being prepared to make choices that are in the long-term best interests of the organisation and its stakeholders, and having the governance and ways of working in place so that those decisions can be implemented, feedback heard and acted on, and learning taken on board.
Each of those stages is harder than it looks. Being fully informed before you make a decision is hard. Hearing from the widest possible range of voices and being open to challenge is vital.
How can we be confident that we are ethical, that we are doing the right thing? We are doing the right thing if we are working to deliver our purpose, and if our actions are in line with our values. And tomorrow is World Values Day…
World Values Day – the power of empathy
Above, I wrote about the importance of ethics, and the opportunity to be braver and more confident about the value of the work that we do.
Behaving ethically means having a clear purpose – a purpose that is of value and benefit to society and the world around us. If purpose is the why, values are the how. Values are truly embedded if employees, customers, clients and all stakeholders can see them in action.
A key value, or characteristic, for a truly ethical leader, is empathy. Being ethical is about understanding the impact that your business has on your people, the communities you operate in and the wider environment, but it is impossible to anticipate the whole of that impact. An organisation can do its best to research and predict the impact of a product in the market, or a decision to build homes in a community, or the impact of pay incentives on employee behaviour, but there will always be outcomes that were not foreseen.
One test of an ethical organisation is whether it is able to hear feedback and challenge, another is how it responds to that challenge, either to respond, change course and or to mitigate or make up for unforeseen consequences.
We could debate whether empathy is a value in its own right or a skill or trait that can be developed to enable the expression of other values. Empathy may be too weak a concept – Hannah Arendt writes about “enlarged thinking”, a form of imagination that allows us to consider other perspectives and experiences.
There are many ways in which leaders can seek to widen their perspectives. At the IBE we often use scenarios and ethical dilemmas in our training. Some businesses use immersive learning through interactive video to bring those scenarios to life. Our board guidance talks about using failure as a learning opportunity. Building reflection into the cycle of decision-making is a powerful way to embed ethical conduct into an organisation. Spending time with people who have varying life experiences or perspectives, in or outside the office, can help leaders see the bigger picture. A famous example is a drinks company executive who stopped manufacturing high-alcohol cider when he saw the impact it had on the vulnerable people he met in a wet hostel. Many businesses partner with schools and community organisations to widen the perspectives of their employees who choose to volunteer.
We operate in a globalised economy where a business can have a huge influence on the lives of people across the world, and where employees expect their identity and life experience to be recognised and understood. It takes compassion, empathy and imagination, as well as a willingness to be open to challenge and learning, to be resilient and open to the many voices seeking the attention of business leaders, and to think about the hopes and needs of the people and communities that might not shout loud enough to be heard.
Rachael is Deputy Director of the Institute and is responsible for our research programme, and our advisory and training services. She is most interested in how research can generate insights that inspire action.
Rachael has collaborated with senior leaders across business, charities, communities, local and central government. After gaining her first degree in Politics and History from the University of Durham, and a Masters in Gender and Social Policy from the London School of Economics, Rachael worked in Westminster, then for Carers UK, for UNISON, the public sector trade union, and for the TUC, on skills policy. She was at Business in the Community for over ten years, as an expert in workplace diversity and then in education business partnerships. As a Director at BITC, she worked closely with the Department for Work and Pensions, the then Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and business leaders from Aviva, Barclays, Nationwide, UBS, McKinsey and many more. Her most recent role was on the SLT of Speakers for Schools as it scaled its delivery of opportunities for young people.
She has held a number of trustee roles including on the board of the Rich Mix Cultural Foundation, the Bromley by Bow Centre and East End Homes. She is currently chair of a charity called Sister System. She was an elected local councillor for ten years and served as leader of the Labour Group on Tower Hamlets Council. In 2019 Rachael gained an MSc from Birkbeck, University of London, in Business Ethics and Corporate Governance, with a dissertation focussed on how boards communicate their community engagement.