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Today’s battle to recruit and retain talent is increasingly being defined by an organisation’s ability to describe its ethics well, and to illustrate the way it shapes day-to-day behaviours, both to employees and to the outside world. What does it mean to be an ethical person, and why do people sometimes make questionable decisions in their professional lives?
Ask almost anyone whether they consider themselves to be an ethical person and invariably they will answer ‘yes’. But what does this mean, and how can people who generally live by sound ethical principles in their private lives end up taking what are at best, questionable decisions in their professional lives?
Recently there have been a number of high profile examples of this – politicians buying duck houses on expenses; journalists thinking it was acceptable to hack into mobile phones; and bankers thinking the only question around selling toxic debt is whether you can find a buyer to offload it onto.
How did these individuals find themselves in these unenviable situations? Surely they can’t simply be ‘bad people’? Something in the makeup of the organisations they operate in must be playing a part. In all the above examples, the individuals concerned would claim that ‘everyone does it’ and there was a tacit understanding in the organisation that it was acceptable behaviour. However, if they stopped for a minute and wondered whether lying about where you lived in order to get extra expenses or listening to someone’s private voice messages was ethical they would surely come up with a very different answer.
People generally find themselves in these positions due to a combination of ‘salami slicing’ and Groupthink. The former is the process whereby tiny incremental moves, each one in itself inconsequential, shift a person’s attitude and behaviour to what would be totally unacceptable if they were to take it in one bold step. For the journalists, it probably started with convincing themselves that taking surreptitious photographs of people in public places was a reasonable, small step to rummaging through people’s dustbins. Moving from that to hacking into their phones does not then seem so unreasonable.
Groupthink, is where a group of people absolve themselves of individual responsibility and allow themselves to go along with the perceived views of the group ignoring usual standards of analysis and criticism in the process? This phenomena was first observed with Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco, but can also be seen at work when the best defence the expense cheating MPs could give was that fiddling expenses was widely understood to be a legitimate way to supplement their ‘meagre’ incomes.
There are growing signs that people today are no longer prepared to find themselves in these situations and are uncomfortable with the lack of moral direction given by many organisations. They are increasingly reluctant to leave their personal standards of behaviour on the front step as they go in to work. In the battle that counts – the battle for talent – an organisation’s approach to ethics will matter more and more.
Most organisations are not equipped to deal with this; it requires a type and a level of thinking that most managers do not engage in. And it requires a willingness amongst individuals to be challenged about all the things that were once straight-batted with “that’s just the way things are around here.”
Every organisation necessarily has a set of ethics – a set of moral principles. These principles can be an unfocused consequence of the organisation’s behaviours. Or they can be a positive assertion of the behaviours it embraces.
Many companies today still fall into the former category: their ethics are not clear. Although to an individual a principle may feel right, he or she may be unsure whether it is endorsed by the business as a whole. No one in such companies is actively shaping the ethical position as a whole – its development, articulation and promulgation. Even where ‘ethics committees’ exist, such as in Parliament, these are seen as reactive and merely window dressing.
Whilst being less keen to have a different moral compass for use in the workplace, employees – for economic, social, and technological reasons – are also far less bound than they once were to a single company for their entire career. Their reasons for belonging to one organisation rather than another depend increasingly on their fit with the organisation in its broadest sense.
This is not to say that one set of ethics will be good and another will not. It is to say that there will be distinct differences and that these differences are important and should be debated: Why do we believe that this is right, when that competitor believes the opposite? Why should I behave in this way here when at home my values are so different? But, irrespective of content, today’s battle to recruit and retain talent is increasingly being defined by an organisation’s ability to describe its ethics well, and to illustrate the way that it shapes day-to-day behaviours, both to employees and to the outside world.
So what should be done? At its simplest, it’s about direction from the top - leaders of organisations being clear about why a company exists as much as what it does. Showing by example the behaviours that demonstrate their beliefs and recruiting, retaining and enthusing people who share those beliefs, and who act and behave in accordance with them.
A new weapon in the battle for talent?