ethics in 2021


  1. Consider context before defining core values.

I would argue that the sector least qualified to advise what constitutes a truly ethical business what ethics such a business should advocate is religion. It would seem that many people agree with me. A recent study found that ministers of religion no longer rank in the top 10 professions in terms of trust. One of the erroneous notions perpetrated by many religions is that ethical or values are absolute – when, in fact, values are almost always relative.

In ‘western’ nations, a high value is placed on individualism, while many Asian cultures discourage individuality instead of prioritising the collective. In Islamic cultures, a business might be viewed as more ethical if it actively aligns itself with the Muslim faith. In Western countries, aligning a business with any faith is fraught with danger. There are few values or ethical standards that are viewed in the same way and with the same priority across the world.

This makes it important to take context into account when determining the core values of a business, especially if the intention is to position it as an ethical business. What is considered ethical in one country may not be considered ethical in another. What is considered ethical within one group in the community may not be considered ethical in another. This highlights the importance of listening to the primary target audience and understanding what it considers ethical.

Recognise that values and ethics are relative, and the optimal values will be set with due consideration of the context.

  1. Embrace the evolution of ethical standards. 

While there were complaints from some conservative commentators, when the CEO of Qantas, Alan Joyce, made media statements supporting same-sex marriage, the majority of the community supported his right to do so. Indeed, some 68% of Australians subsequently voted in favour of legalising same-sex marriage – something that would have been unthinkable 20 years prior and remains unthinkable elsewhere in the world – including some states in the United States.

The lack of community decent for the comments made by Joyce, and the view that same-sex marriage was considered ethical (and indeed a cause worth fighting for) in Australia in 2017, highlights two things:

  • Ethical standards are not uniform across the planet.
  • Ethical standards change or evolve over time.

The first of these points is discussed in an earlier section of this blog. On the second point, same-sex marriage, while supported by two-thirds of Australian voters in 2017, would have received very little support indeed in homophobic Australia of the 1970s, for example. Values embraced by the community in one era may not be embraced in another. Australia is a great deal more ‘politically- correct ‘in 2021 – and embracing values like the federal government’s ‘bonk ban’ would not have been as readily accepted 30 years ago. Now – some view the bonk bad as a minimum standard.

Recognise that values and ethical standards change over time. What is important today may not be considered important tomorrow.

  1. Take a stand on a big issue to establish your credentials.

When Alan Joyce, the CEO of Qantas, voiced his support, and by implication the support of Qantas, for same-sex marriage, most of the community an Australia at least respected his view and his right to express it. More recent comments by Mr Joyce and various other business about climate change have attracted more criticism while enjoying most Australians’ support. While 79% of Australians are concerned about climate change – there is also an increasingly prevalent view that business should take a stand and support significant social or environmental issues.

This is perhaps why research has found that 86% of consumers want businesses to stand for something. There is a growing view that businesses should take a stand on significant economic, social and environmental issues. This is perhaps why:

  • The Business Council of Australia has felt comfortable advocating for an increase in Job Seeker.
  • Major corporations like BHP and Rio Tinto have actively called highlighted the importance of working towards zero emissions by 2050.

There is perhaps a sound economic rationale for increasing Job Seeker and reducing emissions. Still, it is also apparent that businesses see it as good branding to take a stand on these issues. It is hard to see an economic angle for the support of same-sex marriage by Alan Joyce and Qantas – other than the potential of attracting more customers from the same-sex community and its supporters. Put simply – it is increasingly becoming good business for these businesses to take a stand on social and environmental issues.

Consider taking a stand on social and or environmental issues – because it is the right thing to do and good marketing. 

  1. Integrity is a stupid core value for any business.

I have been involved in many projects designed to help businesses establish their core values. Some have involved a sound customer-focused approach, while others had involved a less robust approach at the request of the client. Regardless of the approach, I would estimate that in 95% of cases, ‘ integrity’ was one of the first two or three, if not the first value identified. Read through business plans, annual reports and website ‘about us’ sections and you will notice two naff but common occurrences:

  • The values of the organisation are listed.
  • Integrity is one of the values.

There is no point in listing an organisations values or articulating the elements of its brand in any document – other than staff training documents. Being documented does not make a value real, and if it is not real, it has no point. Further, when a value is real – it will be evident and publishing it will be superfluous.

Integrity is arguably the worst value of them all. I say this for two reasons:

  • It is ubiquitous and lacking credibility.
  • Nobody knows what it means, and there are better terms.

When every second organisation lists integrity as a value – it loses its potency. If everybody says it and few deliver it – there is no credibility. Most banks say they have integrity. Do you believe them?

Few people seem to understand the real meaning of the word integrity. Indeed, there are many definitions. Very often, words like transparent and honest are more precise and more credible. They are certainly easier to demonstrate.

Be honest and transparent – but avoid integrity as a value. 

  1. Be prepared to defend your ethical positioning. 

While the support for same-sex marriage expressed by Alan Joyce, the CEO of Qantas, had broad community support, it was criticised by conservative members of the government and representatives of various religions. While the support of multiple businesses for action on climate changes was supported by much of the community, elements of the government were urging them to stay ‘out of politics.’ Whenever a business takes a moral or ethical stand, there is a chance they will be attacked.

In such cases, such businesses are best served by defending their position. In supporting their position, such businesses also reinforce their ethical stance and their willingness to fight for it within target audiences.

No matter how ethical a business and no matter how ethics focused on a business’s culture, there will inevitably be slip-ups. Some will one day do the wrong thing, say the wrong thing, or generally fail to live up to the ethical positioning adopted expectations. Slip-ups of this kind have the potential to destroy the ethical positioning of the business. However, they also have the potential to enhance the ethical positioning of the business.

The outcome of a slip up depends entirely on how it is handled. If the business tries to paper over the matter, damage will follow. If, on the other hand, the business admits the slip-up, is totally transparent about the circumstances and takes decisive action, the business’s image can be enhanced. Everyone makes mistakes, and those who admit them – can be forgiven – if not rewarded.

It is not enough to establish an ethical positioning. That positioning must be defended when it is criticised by external players or damaged by internal players.

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