April 2013

April 2nd, 2013 by Matthew de Lange

Why business ethics is top of the L&D agenda... 

One of the most powerful learning experiences I have ever witnessed occurred a few years back when I was facilitating a seminar for internal auditors on business ethics.

We'd played out a scene and a very experienced auditor was remonstrating with the character and sticking to his view of what the character should do in that situation. Then there was a pause, a silence, and in front of 30 of his colleagues the auditor said “ I'm wrong aren't I”.

Business ethics is currently one of the hottest topics around in learning and development. Whether it is politicians’ expenses, bankers mis-selling, horsemeat in the food chain or almost unbelievable neglect in the NHS, ethics has forced itself to the top of the social and business agenda

There are three main things to understand about business ethics: 

  • Ethical issues are everywhere in your business. This is not just about major contracts and board decisions. Everyone in your organisation makes daily ethical decisions- whether it's about office stationery, charging expenses, cutting corners, entertaining etc. Each nurse, politician, food processor or banker may have individually only committed a small unethical action but the collective impact became catastrophic. And even where it doesn’t it can create a toxic culture which lowers morale, raises staff absence and leaving rates and eats into your profit margins. Few organisations can feel comfortable that it’s not an issue for them. In a survey for European Business Forum 35% of employees believe that they are asked to perform duties at work that conflict with their own sense of fairness or ethics. 
  • The ethical culture flows from the top. People take their cue from above them as to “what is acceptable around here”. And it's not what leaders say – it's what they do; it's what they focus on and spend time on. We've heard with great interest what Barclays CEO Anthony Jenkins has said about ethics – what matters more is what actions follow. In fact if leaders say one thing with their words but another with their actions it’s probably worse than if they said nothing. That same survey found 42% of employees believe that speaking up on issues where they disagree with their superiors is likely to damage their career prospects. 
  • The most important key to fostering an ethical culture is to ensure that people are able and encouraged to talk about any dilemmas that arise. Of the fifth of British employees who have been aware of misconduct in their organisation in the last year, only half of these (51%) say they have reported it. (Institute of Business Ethics survey 2012). But it’s not just about reporting it. It’s about being able to talk about it, to ask advice, to explore options. If it’s not okay to question it then it’s not okay.

And that's where the drama comes in. By playing out in a safe environment everyday ethical dilemmas the participants are given permission to explore and to challenge. It’s suddenly okay to raise issues and more than that - through the use of forum drama - the participants can acquire a vocabulary for raising issues and questioning decisions without being confrontational or fearing for their jobs.

Most people in organisations are pretty certain that they know what's acceptable around here and there also pretty certain that you don't get on by rocking the boat. The business leaders themselves have to demonstrate that the latter is not true, but nothing, absolutely nothing, works as powerfully as drama based learning to help people air their concerns, challenge the status quo and, in many cases, like the auditor, recognise that they themselves may have it wrong. 
Matthew de Lange is non-executive chair of Steps. He has run business ethics workshops for large and small businesses, for professional institutions and schools. He has lectured on the subject as Visiting Professor at Bristol Business School. 


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