Is it time for corporate grassroots?

By Robert Gordon

The recent CGMA ethics report provides an important and fascinating insight into just how effective efforts into promoting ethical business practices have been over the last few years. It is undeniable that conversations, training seminars and codes of conduct have all been moving towards developing a greater appreciation for the role of ethics in the corporate sector – but we’re still seeing a significant lag time in these initiatives bringing about true changes in the daily decision-making practices that they speak of. 

It’s interesting to see the correlations with our own report released at the end of 2011, particularly in what Bishop Peter Selby referred to as “the contradictions with which [those] who responded seem to live...’How do you live with this contradiction?’ seems like a fertile question for both individual encounters and discussion/conference work”. Ethics is in danger of becoming a buzzword, something that we rely upon when backed into a corner but that ultimately is marginalised with little more than a nudge and a wink. Until ethical principles become a primary force in our corporate governance and behaviour – one that rivals the search for financial profit – we will not be able to transition towards the capitalist structures needed to ensure a sustainable framework that ultimately works for the benefit of society rather than a burden upon it.

There are two key areas of this recent report that I wish to commend and build upon: the focus on ethical culture, and the search for tangible definitions of ethical practice. What we’ve been seeing is increasing effort on defining ethical practice within the corporate environment. This is displayed in the ethical codes of conduct which are being written and distributed to a greater extent. But the area where continued efforts are needed rests on the creation of an ethical culture; one that ensures that these documents aren’t just followed to the letter, but that their broader intent is understood and adhered to. Whilst example-setting from the top is required in this process, we could also learn more from how cultural shifts occur outside of the corporate sector. What is needed, in my opinion, is a way in which we can instil grassroots methodologies into our corporate structures – bringing back a concept of community into our workplaces that will enable moral and ethical conduct to be given the prominence it deserves.

What does this mean in practical terms? At a basic level it means running training exercises that focus on trust-building and community rather than just box-ticking and compliance; discussion groups that are allowed to mull over difficult philosophical conundrums and spiritual concerns about our working life, and even the meaning of work altogether; it means strengthening corporate responsibility programmes and enabling them to be employee driven; ensuring that the use and means of whistleblowing are understood and appreciated; and it means having more opportunities for the new graduate to sit on equal terms with the senior executive and not be afraid to speak their mind.

What all of these things do is incentivise ethical behaviour, but not through monetary means. Money has rapidly diminishing returns when it comes to our sense of happiness, but being considered an important foundation of a corporate community because of your contributions to its overall wellbeing and longevity is an incentive that we can’t help but desire. We need to punish unethical behaviour swiftly (even if it leads to positive financial results), but more importantly we must incentivise ethical behaviour through a grassroots approach to corporate community building that will dynamically recognise such endeavours.

In a recent cathedral floor event that St Paul’s Institute ran with noted public philosopher and Harvard professor Michael Sandel he discussed the “effect of money on etiquettes, values, and norms” and that we must “find our way towards a more morally robust form of public discourse”. Where money is the bottom line, unethical behaviour is inevitable – and the extent to which money is a concern will dictate the likelihood of unethical business practices. We must readdress the balance between profit margins, social utility and human wellbeing in our corporate environments. In order to do so we must implement the elements which are lacking more directly into our daily experience of the working environment – ethics must become a reflex, not merely a compliance decision. Only then will we be able to overcome some of the grave dangers currently faced in a globalised world where market concerns are allowed to steamroll over our duty towards other human beings and the planetary ecosystem we rely upon.

If none of this seems persuasive then there’s one primary consideration that can be made – profit levels rely upon the health of the local and global economies we operate within. If we continue to poison the social, economic and ecological environments than the end result for corporate success is predictable and inevitable. A deep and nuanced ethical culture across all sectors of society is key to overcoming the challenges we face, so the question then becomes: how are you going to help create it?

Robert Gordon is Manager of St Paul’s Institute, an initiative of St Paul’s Cathedral that seeks to foster an informed Christian response to the most urgent ethical and spiritual issues of our times: financial integrity, economic theory, and the meaning of the common good.  Originally from Australia, Robert gained a B.A. (Hons) in Anthropology from the University of Melbourne before relocating to the UK and receiving an M.A. in Museum Studies from University College London.  His work at St Paul’s enables him to combine his love of cultural heritage with an appreciation of the importance of sacred space, community and the reconciliation of disparate viewpoints.”