Can ethical policies be distinctive?

A barrister friend told me that, on his first day, he was told by his Head of Chambers that he should always behave like a gentleman – and that was all he needed to know about business ethics. That was a while ago and now most organisations have lengthy ethical policies with accompanying training for all staff.

I have run a number of short courses for industry professionals on creating and developing ethical policies. Two experiences stand out. 

Different cultures

The first was a comment made to me by a student who had been offered a job in another country. He said that he was reluctant to take it because he had heard negative stories about how “they” behaved when it came to contracting ethics. I asked him to give me some examples. Apparently “they” didn’t like foreign contractors referring to the contract or giving claims notices while the work was progressing as this was bad for the relationship (which was thought to be very important). However, “they” were only too eager to enforce the contract to the letter, and beyond, if the contractor did not meet its obligations in full.

I asked the student whether he thought that this ever happened in his own country. After some thought, he accepted that it did happen, but he felt more comfortable managing such situations in a familiar environment. After further thought, he decided to write his thesis on a comparison between alleged ethical shortcomings in Country X and the actual standard of business ethics in a farmer’s market in his local village. His conclusion was that “people are people” with a range of good, bad and mediocre behaviours, regardless of their geographical location. The important thing was to choose the right people to do business with.

Corporate policy

The second experience was a reaction to an ethical policy that was on the website of a well-known company which had won numerous awards for its ethical behaviour. There was even a video from the person in charge explaining the policy and why it was important for that particular company. I was quite impressed with the video and got permission from the company to show it to the students.

I asked the students what they thought and the overwhelming reaction was that it was… well a polite way of reporting their reaction was to say that they found it wholly unconvincing. I was puzzled, until they told me they had almost all seen an ethics video from their own companies, in a variety of sectors. Apart from the company name, their videos were almost exactly the same, in many cases even using the same words. Their conclusion was that the publication of an ethics policy has what we lawyers describe as “no evidential value” in determining whether a company behaves ethically or not.

What is ethical?

I wonder whether rolling out an ethical policy (which only says what others are saying) is the modern day equivalent of telling young (male) barristers to “behave like a gentleman”. Presumably, the Head of Chambers would have thought that everyone knew what that meant and there was no need to spell it out. Not as naïve as one might think. Being considered ethical is a matter of perception according to the values of the observer. The discussions in Yes Minister as to whether people were “sound” come to mind.

So it would be easy to say that ethics, rather like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder. But that’s not the whole story. It is certainly true that the ethics of an organisation will be judged by what it does (and by what the individuals within it do) rather than what is written in its ethical policy. But we must also remember the words of Aldo Leopold who said that “Ethical behaviour is doing the right thing when no one else is watching – even when doing the wrong thing is legal.”

Hill Dickinson LLP Edward Davies

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