Now is the right time to look at your culture

05 February 2020

Tags: Corporate governance, Decision-making, Ethical Values, Treatment of Employees

Ethical failures in business continue to happen with depressing regularity. Unfortunately, many organisations are only spurred to look at their culture and take the steps to embed ethical values at the heart of their decision making after things have gone badly wrong and customers, shareholders and colleagues have suffered as a result. 

Boards and ethics leaders then face an uphill struggle in trying to shift the organisation’s culture. They will need to get rapid buy-in for a set of refreshed ethical values and target behaviours that may seem aspirational in the context of a tarnished reputation, risking a cynical response from colleagues and customers. Internal and external pressures may mean that the immediate priorities have to be on the traditional compliance elements of preventing staff from doing the wrong thing, with less appetite for an ethics programme that will be focussed more on empowering and encouraging staff to do the right thing. Multiple change programmes will be underway and staff turnover will be high. The key middle management layer will be stretched, trying to balance multiple competing priorities, stress levels will be high and everyone will be operating under immense pressure. 

Rather than responding to a crisis, it would be far better for boards to act proactively when times are good, for example on the back of strong employee survey or customer satisfaction scores. The messages can then be about celebrating and reinforcing what is best about the organisation’s culture and improving areas where the organisation could do even better. It will be a positive exercise based on a common acceptance that the organisation is already a great place to work.

Even if things are going well, boards need to ask themselves how strong and resilient their culture is. Cultures change, adapt and can very easily drift, and a small number of individuals with poor behaviours can undermine cultural norms unless checked. Changes in senior management and reorganisations that often accompany a reputational crisis can significantly destabilise an organisation’s culture. Unless the cultural anchors are strong and well embedded, colleagues can quite quickly find themselves looking back with nostalgia at the organisation they used to love working for. It will be a long journey back and an exercise that is best avoided by ensuring a robust, well embedded ethical culture is in place. 

The IBE is here to support organisations through every step of their ethics programme.


Mark Chambers
Mark Chambers

Associate Director - Governance

Mark brings 30 years of experience from a successful career in business to help grow the IBE’s interaction with boards, regulators and policy makers.

After graduating in Zoology from Oxford University, Mark re-trained as a lawyer and spent his early years at Slaughter and May in their London and New York offices before moving into business. During his career, he managed world-class global functions responsible for governance, legal and regulatory risk management in large, complex, regulated businesses. He was General Counsel & Group Company Secretary at RSA Insurance Group and at Worldpay Group, and held senior positions at American Express and GE Capital. He retired as Deputy Group Company Secretary of HSBC in 2018 to pursue a second career, which also includes non-executive and advisory work. 

For many years, Mark has had a successful career as a non-executive director. He is a member of the board of the Care Quality Commission, the independent regulator of health and social care in England, and chairs their Regulatory Governance Committee. He is also a non-trustee member of the Audit and Risk Committee of Maggie’s.

Previous roles included the Chair role at Amref Health Africa and Audit Committee Chair at WWF, where he also led the Committee that oversaw the development of the charity's exemplar new headquarters building. Mark was a finalist in the 2014 Sunday Times Non-Executive of the Year Awards.

The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it. – General H. Norman Schwarzkopf

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