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Why Creating a Truly Ethical Business Is About Actions, Not Words

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Written by: Martin Mulcare

I think it is obvious that a professional is expected to behave ethically. In fact, the definition of a “profession” adopted by Professions Australia opens with: “A profession is a disciplined group of individuals who adhere to ethical standards…”

But what do we mean by “ethics”?

There are many different definitions, perceptions and opinions about ethics, but I prefer the original concept. The father of philosophy, Socrates, believed that it was summed up in a short question: “What ought one to do?”

Ethics, therefore, is simply how to decide what to do in any given situation. The significance of this definition should not be underestimated. It poses two fundamental challenges that many people struggle with:

1. Ethics requires a thinking process, a basis or a framework for an individual to make decisions – and not everyone is willing to attempt to understand how they make decisions.

2. Ethics is about action. It’s not the theory or the intentions that count, it is what is actually done that matters – and not everyone is willing to be judged on their actions.

So this is a very difficult subject, and how it is made visible in your business is a real challenge. If you decide to lift the profile of ethical thinking in your business, two options are readily promoted:

Undertake an ethics course

This will be helpful if you and your team would like a better understanding of the many different ethical frameworks that might be adopted (and there are plenty of them). This could be especially useful if you and your team have different backgrounds and it appears that people make decisions differently. However, on its own it won’t be sufficient, because ethics is about action.

Develop your own code of ethics

This will be helpful if you would like to differentiate the ethics of your business from the ethics of your competitors (or your clients’ expectations). This could be especially useful as a team activity to collectively define your code. Again, however, it won’t be sufficient, because ethics is about action.

My strong recommendation is to establish a habit of sharing actual ethical problems that arise and working through the options to make (and implement) a transparent decision. Whether the process happens formally via an ‘ethics committee’ or informally through ad hoc discussions at a desk, water cooler or team meeting is not important.

What is important is that we exercise our ethical thinking capability. I recently attended a workshop, led by Simon Longstaff of the St James Ethics Centre, and his strong contention is that employees are not given enough opportunity to practise ethical thinking. Too often the decisions are delegated to the compliance team or sent for a legal opinion.

Let’s consider a simple example and how the process might work. Imagine that you have inadvertently shared one client’s financial information with another client. What ought one to do? Longstaff’s concern is that many business people would refrain from thinking about this and seek a legal opinion based on the Privacy Act.

My recommendation would be to include a few members of your team in a discussion about the possible actions that could be taken. The discussion should include the rationale for the actions and, importantly, the basis for making (and implementing) the final decision.

This is not only educational and informative for your team, but they build confidence that they are working in an ethical business.

These are the best of times to ensure that your business is run on ethical principles – and that ethical decision-making is shared and visible.

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