What’s the role of the IBE?
The Institute of Business Ethics was established in 1986 by business to promote high standards of business practice based on ethical values. We do this by raising awareness of business ethics issues through our research and sharing good practice through our network of corporate subscribers and the wider public.
What kind of organisations do you work with?
Most of our subscribers are large corporates (44% of our subscribers are FTSE350 companies) but we are here for organisations of any size. The larger corporates tend to have different issues because of their complexity, but smaller organisations are also finding that awareness of ethical issues is coming higher up their agenda.
What’s ‘success’ in your book?
Wow! Good question! Without sounding too much like a 1970s beauty queen, it would have to be a business world where you could be certain that the ethical dimension had been considered before every business decision, whether that was strategy, marketing, who to sub-contract to, who to hire, how to fire, and even who your clients are.
In reality, the world is complex, sometimes there are no single right answers, just a choice between two less wrong ones. But by talking about the issues, and encouraging organisations to consider the impact decisions may have, I believe we’re making progress.
Can you quantify ‘ethical business’?
At the IBE, we distinguish between a company which does ethical things, and one which does things ethically. For us, we don’t make judgements about different kinds of industries, what’s important is the way business is done. Do they pay suppliers on time? Do they respect customers and respond to their complaints? Are employees treated fairly? Does the company honour its responsibilities to wider society, for example by paying local taxes, or ensuring it doesn’t pollute?
The best companies aim higher, they go beyond their ethical duty, and look to impact upon the world and their stakeholders in a positive way.
Is it easier for start-ups to be ethical than for older businesses with legacies and heritage?
Start-ups, and smaller businesses, do have an advantage in that they are usually more in touch with their values. As a start-up, you can only hire people who feel the way you do.
However, some older businesses have a strong sense of ethical culture and identity, based on their founding fathers. The stories which come from this heritage can have a profound effect on how decisions are made. The classic story is that of Johnson & Johnson and their Credo, and how it guided them during the Tylenol poisoning crisis.
Does your role leave you feeling depressed or optimistic about business?
Actually, it’s very optimistic. Working and researching in this field, you realise that most people are driven by a desire to do the right thing. They just need support in how to get there. The most optimistic statistic is that the younger generations are actually beginning to shape the agenda, with research suggesting that they are looking for evidence that a company takes its values seriously when considering it as an employer. These are the business leaders of the future.
Presumably a company’s ethical base starts with its values: what advice would you have for companies thinking about their values set?
Most important of all is to realise that you already have values. They are not invented by a management consultant. Talk to each other, and articulate what it means to work at your company. What’s important to you as a collective. What drives you as a company.
Do you see evidence for integrity building colleague engagement?
In a way, I think this is a no brainer. Who wants to work in an organisation without integrity? You need to be able to trust your team, your line manager, and your boss to do the right thing. We spend so much time at work, we want it to be meaningful and enjoyable, whatever it is that we do.
Tell us about something interesting you’ve come across in your work with the IBE!
A story which is haunting me at the moment is an old one about the Ford Pinto scandal, but retold from the engineers’ perspective. I think it underlines what’s so interesting about ethics – that it is about choice, sometimes between two ‘rights’, two competing stakeholders. The research into ‘why good people do bad things’ is very interesting at the moment. The fact that ethics isn’t simply about a choice between right and wrong; you need to put so much into the mix – pressures of time, resources, wanting to do right by your boss, your colleagues, your friends and family.