Fairness - SSE

SSE adopts Day 4 of Ethics Month by exploring what fairness means in its business.


To mark the 30th birthday of the Institute of Business Ethics, I want to celebrate the role of fairness – and in particular, fair wages - in promoting ethical business cultures.

The Institute of Business Ethics was created to promote high standards of business behaviour based on ethical values. This was a big and important endeavour for the time. The 1980’s was an age of remarkable transformation of markets but not a time normally associated with the rise of corporate responsibility. With the IBE came an idea that values and beliefs should guide the conduct of businessmen and women.

There is nothing about the idea of fairness that most would argue with. The pursuit of fairness galvanises politicians across the spectrum and is a concept that resonates even with the smallest children. But it is, of course, an entirely subjective concept. What is fair to one might be unfair to another. There are times, however, when an idea captures the imagination of the majority and its simplicity encapsulates the notion of fairness perfectly. For me, the Living Wage does exactly that.

The central proposition of the Living Wage is that it is a rate of pay calculated as one where you do more than just survive. That you could live a life free from the oppression of poverty. That no matter what job you did, it was only fair that if you worked, you deserved to earn enough to live a decent life.

We now know that the majority of people who live in poverty live in a household where someone works. In other words, it is a myth that poverty relates to the ‘work shy’ or the idle. It seems particularly unfair that the majority of people in poverty earn their poverty, they don’t claim it.

The Living Wage is not the same as a statutory minimum wage, which considers wider economic influences and the labour market as a whole. The Living Wage is all about the individual: their life and that of their family. For Living Wage employers, it was a voluntary choice to go above and beyond the statutory minimum. We did it because we wanted to, not because we had to. These employers discover many happy consequences too: retention rates increased, employee engagement improved and company reputation benefited.

So, to a large, UK listed headquartered company, SSE found the case made by the Living Wage campaigners highly compelling. How could it be fair that some of our employees could be earning a rate of pay that may mean they would be on the bread line?

So in 2013, SSE became the 322nd company to become an accredited Living Wage employer. We were the biggest company at the time to join the movement, the only energy company and one of the first in Scotland. We increased the pay of 158 employees who were receiving the national minimum wage and we began to implement a ‘Living Wage Clause’ into our service and works contracts. If SSE employees were to receive a Living Wage, it seemed unfair if contracted workers earned less. An estimated further 600 contracted workers receive a pay rise each year as a result of this policy.

We signed up to the Living Wage because we wanted to. We believed it was the right thing to do but in hindsight it had a profound impact in ways we had not envisaged.

First of all, we were overwhelmed by the response of our colleagues. We expected those who received a pay rise to be pleased, what we hadn’t anticipated was how important this signal on fair pay would be to everyone else. It lifted spirits and improved everyone’s morale.

Secondly, the Living Wage became a symbol of everything we stood for. Such a clear and unambiguous statement about the company’s view on fairness, I believe, has helped build a stronger ethical business culture throughout the organisation.

I am writing this on the eve of Living Wage Week. Once a year the Living Wage Movement, comprising now of 3,000 UK employers alongside a deep, interconnected and energetic civil society campaign, promotes the new Living Wage rate for the year ahead and celebrates those employers who have voluntarily signed up. It is a remarkable movement that has, truly, made a difference to the lives of thousands of low paid working people. What could be fairer than that?

Rachel McEwen

Director of Sustainability
Rachel joined SSE in 2007 and, as Director of Sustainability, is responsible for its sustainability strategy, corporate responsibility programmes and corporate heritage.


Business Ethics News

IBE monitors the media for business ethics stories

Latest Business Ethics Thinking

Keep up to date with the latest surveys, blogs and newsletters

Find Out More about Business Ethics Topics and Issues

Some common ethics issues and challenges


Sample scenarios for teaching and training

Books & Films

Our favourite books and films

IBE Videos

Pearls of Wisdom from IBE's Research Director, Simon Webley

Showcasing Good Practice

IBE supporters and others talking about ethical business practice

The IBE Blog

Latest thinking from the IBE


Answers to the most frequently asked questions 

My Basket

There are no items in your basket


Support Us & Get Involved

Support the IBE

...twitter talk

Contact the Institute of Business Ethics