By Michelle Wright, founder and CEO of Cause4
We’re currently facing ethical dilemmas in so many parts of our life. A global pandemic has stretched resources and energy levels to the max and international movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo have placed everyone under a spotlight. The ethics of corporations are being monitored carefully and some of their responses to Covid-19 demonstrate admirable ethical values, while others that behaved poorly to customers, clients and shareholders have altered their reputations irreparably.
Even before the pandemic, the business world was crackling with discussion about the ethics of funding, how to ensure fair employment opportunities for more than a select few, and how staff should be treated. The financial pressures on entrepreneurs have been extreme. They have struggled through a dramatic shift in their business operations, coped with working from home, furloughing and, often, the closing of their retail spaces or entertainment venues. The danger for our society is if those extreme financial burdens stop business leaders making the efforts to progress things that we hold dear – accessibility, diversity and equality. These fundamentals could get lost as companies fight to survive financially.
Going forward it might seem impossible to be too choosy about how we rebuild. But it’s important for organisations to stick to some basic principles and to deconstruct their views on others. Before we seek to rebuild our growth strategies at all, it’s time to reset our own moral compass and to build our corporate relationships from a strong basis of ethical principal.
Ethical strategy isn’t a behind-the-scenes activity, or a special project initiated because the board has come to the conclusion that ‘we need one of those.’ An ethical strategy needs to be informed by and, in turn, influence every aspect of an organisation. There are too many examples of decisions being made, or issues ignored, in a boardroom cut off from the ‘real world’, without the diversity of opinion or lived experience to provide a broader view of the challenges being faced or the opinions of the wider community. The Edward Colston statue in Bristol had become an ugly reminder to many of the slave trading history of the city. The toppling of the statue as part of a Black Lives Matter demonstration showed, without doubt, that symbolism is important. It’s not ok to generate wealth out of past actions that we find reprehensible, or to celebrate individuals who were responsible for atrocities. Why the controversial statue was still in place, after so many previous petitions and requests to remove it, begs the question ‘did someone not think this was important?’
We are going to expect a lot from our leaders in the year ahead, and it won’t be good enough to say ‘sorry, we didn’t think about that’ when asked to defend a decision or a failure to act.
In the rush to survive, I hope that companies do the right thing. Despite the shock that has sent most industries reeling, we need to stick to our basic values and ethical responsibilities. It will give our decision making a sense of direction and credibility.
We are seeing much more intervention from the state and this has been essential, but it’s the way the various sectors stand together to rebuild that is essential. We will continue working with Government, but we shouldn’t be vying for resources over others. Surely, that’s no different than stockpiling toilet paper and leaving others with empty shelves? The UK and global debt are going to last for a long time. We need new solutions and partnerships that contribute to reducing and sharing the burden of these economic difficulties. There will be no room for bloated strategies or pet projects. Ethical positions will be ones of sustainability.
We will want to see our leaders act with integrity and not to slash and burn. They need to demonstrate openness and honesty in their decisions, putting their people first and not just to meet political or economic interests. We need to advocate far more quickly against injustice and create urgency around burning issues. For example, climate change is a process as dramatic as the pandemic, costing even more lives, but its slower speed of progression means that the political will to act with any urgency is missing. Similarly, millions of children die every year of hunger and basic resources – why not act with the same determination and speed when it comes to climate action and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? Trillions of dollars were approved within days to support the victims of the pandemic and to stabilise the economy. Why not so for achieving the SDGs?
Where to start?
Every organisation needs a ‘defensible’ policy that provides a clear view on how to act to avoid backlash, without ignoring vital fundraising or income-generating opportunities. This strategy can be the umbrella that all activity comes under, a way that all levels of management can maintain an ethical stance on the decisions they make every day. Conversations about what constitutes a defensible ethics policy aren’t straight forward and it’s important that there is a structure to any discussion, linking to diverse insight, so that individuals can make and justify their decisions. Opinions run high from a personal perspective when we talk about ethics, and it’s important to remember that as far as possible we should come to an organisational consensus as to what’s appropriate as opposed to an individual one.
Ethics is a guiding light not a rule book. In the same way, our leaders need to be inspirational not dictatorial. Is there any point being ethical? Unless you’ve been oblivious to the current world’s crises, I’m pretty sure you’ll agree with me. This is a chance to embed ethical responses into our working lives. Without them, we’re risking more than our reputations.