Will 2014 be when many industries re-discover their ethical boundaries?

The year 2013 was striking for a flood of ethical shame. This both shocked and

“…revealed too many uncomfortable truths about how today’s world works.”[1]

ethical compassSomething went wrong in two security agencies. Whatever your views on Snowden for example, they lost their moral bearings.

It can be hard to decide what being responsible means.

The British media faced strong demands to change behaviour.  Western pharma companies must re-think their approach. Especially in China. World-wide financial services continue an uphill struggle to regain trust and respect. UK energy suppliers crossed some kind of ethical line.

Leaders need to understand how to create an ethical work place. When and why do good employees make bad moral choices?

In search of answers, senior managers may wonder: are there any universal rules? No ethical standards appear in most corporate governance directives. The exceptions are Belgium and the UK.[2]

Starting placeSafe starting place

Where to begin, what are boundaries? For example, technology keeps posing new ethical dilemmas. How do you make sense of 3-D printing or driverless cars? What should be our response to low-quality and counterfeit pharmaceuticals? [3]

One way is to check in to the 2014 World’s Most Ethical Companies. This is a benchmark of responsible behaviour.

The free survey consists of thirty detailed pages of questions. From these stem each entrant’s “Ethics Quotient (EQ)”.

Although not unique, this survey can be confronting. For example, is your company aware of its Carbon Disclosure Leadership Index? Or its Global Resourcing Index–this latter tests sustainability credentials?

While such surveys can be useful, viable boundaries cannot stem from external standards. Instead, they must emerge from within an organisation’s own culture. From this we can deduce some basic ground rules for all aspiring ethical leaders:

STips notetep 1: Know your own moral compass—how do you judge what is ethical; what are you core values, do you articulate them often?

Step 2: Use core values to help the organisation clarify its ethical boundaries. Don’t rely on codes of practice that few will read or grasp.

Step 3: Set the ethical tone. Be willing to talk about “ethics”. Don’t resort to bland phrasing such as “principled” or “responsible” organisation.

Step 4: Establish a formal decision making process. This must help people make ethical choices. Ethics must become a live issue. Face the complexity of ethical choices. Build an ethical filter into all decision making.

Step 5: You and your senior team model ethical behaviour. Talking about it is not enough. For example, show respect for them, and celebrate positive ethical choices.

Step 6: Allow nobody to opt out of meeting the ethical standards you set. Make clear the absolutes. What are the “must does” in the organisation? Hold everyone to account, with no exceptions.

Step 7: Keep going. Make ethical conduct part of the culture, not flavour of the month. Talk often about the search for ethical boundaries. These are not something you have or don’t have; remind everyone to stay vigilant.


[1] E.Morozov, The Snowden saga, Ft 27.12.2013

[3] Emerging Ethical Dilemmas in Science and Technology, Daily Science, December 12 2012


Andrew Leigh is author of Ethical Leadership (Kogan Page 2013) and writes on this at www.ethical-leadership.co.uk


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