"The future ain’t what it used to be"

Blog
18 June 2020

Tags: Ethics Programme issues

Read the blog by Mark Chambers, IBE's Associate Director (Governance).

The great Yankees catcher Yogi Berra is now better known for his malapropisms than his exploits on the baseball field, and his famous observation on the ever changing and uncertain nature of the future is particularly resonant today. Our futures have changed almost overnight and we all face a lengthy period of confusion and uncertainty as to the way ahead.

The COVID crisis has been a huge test of the strength of stakeholder relationships for all businesses, yet many have achieved massive transformation in a short period of time. Those businesses that have stayed true to their purpose and that are run with a strong ethical foundation have been best placed. By contrast, businesses that have taken advantage of their workforce, short changed their customers and damaged the communities in which they operate are being found out. 

Faced with the need for direction in a time of crisis, humanity has been at the heart of the best responses. That’s because doing the right thing for your stakeholders makes business sense. The best businesses have long recognised that a company is only part of a complex stakeholder ecosystem and understood that maintaining a vibrant and healthy ecosystem benefits everyone.

An investment in business ethics makes for a better business but achieving the sustainable benefits from doing business ethically requires committed leadership, an investment in training and communications to shape a shared and consistent culture, and an active programme of monitoring and assurance to make sure that it doesn’t drift. Get this right, and there are direct business benefits from a more engaged and loyal workforce and improved trust in the business. Investing in a strong speak-up culture, whereby colleagues at all levels feel able to raise concerns, confident that they will be listened to and acted on, provides a business with a vital early warning of things going wrong. 

Ethical issues arise everywhere but have been front and centre in the COVID crisis, with enormously difficult decisions being made about issues like renegotiating with suppliers and furloughing staff. Principles-based decision making has been to the fore, with staff at all levels more empowered to make difficult, urgent decisions faced with unprecedented uncertainty. Rule books have not helped and ethical values have been a vital enabler. Businesses with strong, ethical values, embedded into decision making frameworks, have seen better, faster decisions being taken.

For many businesses, some of the biggest challenges are yet to come. As a society we face the prospect of even greater inequality. Business responses to things like executive pay, the rebasing of global supply chains, the lagging hangover of built-up mental health issues and the challenges of environmental stewardship will require decisions that are more demonstrably fair and transparent and will be reviewed by a wider range of stakeholders, including a more interventionist state. Communications will need to be consistent and authentic.

Now is the time to prioritise ethics in your business. Cutting back on ethics programmes may seem like an easy expediency, but the new breed of ethics and compliance professionals needs your support and encouragement. These leaders play a vital role in shaping and embedding the shared and consistent culture that will be needed to navigate the difficult waters ahead. As Yogi Berra also said, “if you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else”.

Author

Mark Chambers
Mark Chambers

Associate Director - Governance, IBE, m.chambers@ibe.org.uk

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. Mark is a former member of the CBI’s Financial Services Committee.

For many years, Mark has had a successful career as a charity trustee, most recently as Chair of Amref Health Africa and prior to that as a trustee of WWF, where he chaired the Audit Committee and 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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