What place does ethics have in business?

Just Recruitment Group Ltd Director Peter Foy reflects on the value of morality in contemporary commerce.

Most people working in the business world tend to believe that companies are there to make money.

Put simply, a company’s primary business is business. It needs to generate wealth for its shareholders. If it performs some good deeds in the process – a bit of positive Corporate Social Responsibility work here, some charitable giving there – all well and good. But the bottom line is, well, the bottom line.

I want to challenge that wisdom. I don’t think money-making is the full story for contemporary commercial operations. Yes, it’s important. But unless businesses contribute to healthy communities, they stand very little chance of flourishing.

Why communities matter

Just consider for a moment. It is from our communities that we draw employees, customers, champions and critics. If we’re not surrounded by a vibrant grouping of people with a clearly defined sense of the common good, we may as well not be trading.

When the communities in which we operate thrive, we thrive. When they suffer, we suffer. We are wedded to our neighbours and they to us. Our destinies are entwined.

That explains why businesses that don’t look out for the people around them so often fail. We rely on our neighbours, as they rely on us. To use a phrase that was unfortunately hijacked by politicians a decade or so ago, we’re in it together.

Expert opinion

These sentiments have been well articulated by businesspeople such as Marc Benioff and academics like Professor Atul Shah, who works at the University of Suffolk.

The message is simple: business needs to be rooted in community. Greed isn’t good. Mutuality and other-regard are.

Of course, the notion that business should take account of ethics is by no means novel. Adam Smith, the man often cited as the father of the laissez-faire economy, stressed the need for Corporate Social Responsibility. The market is right but the market needs management. Individual greed must not be allowed to damage the common good.

Benioff, the founder of Salesforce.com, is eloquent in his belief that businesses need to be generous with their profits and talents to develop the communities in which they trade. He argues forcibly that this generosity should continue even when times are hard. When communities suffer, so do corporations. They need to stand alongside one another.

Professor Shah approaches the issue from a slightly different angle. As an academic he is concerned with how our future businesspeople, i.e. his students, are equipped to enter the market. His major thesis is that commerce needs to be rooted in a lived ethics: for business to prosper in an acceptable fashion, its practitioners must have a societal framework from which they can draw an ethical pattern.

Knowing right from wrong

In other words: businesspeople need to know right from wrong and feel compelled to act accordingly.

The Institute of Business Ethics (IBE) regularly publishes surveys of the general public’s perception concerning the morality of businesses. You can see Just Recruitment’s summary of some of its most recent findings by clicking on the video above. The understanding of what is ethical in the survey is divided into two categories:

1) Legal

  • Financial probity
  • Discrimination
  • Prejudice

Cross these lines and you break the law. So, speak out.

2) Subjective

Are you, as an employee, happy with the environment you are working in?

In its own ethical guide, the IBE states:

“We recognise that this Guide cannot cover every challenge that you might face in your work. In these situations, we trust you to use your personal judgment to make the right decisions.”

Forming judgments

This, I think, is the rub. Because, for a person to have trustworthy judgement, they must have some understanding of right and wrong. And that’s why companies need to have ethical practice hardwired into their operations. Ethics should be in every business’s DNA.

How else will employees calibrate their moral compass?

The challenge

Here’s my challenge to the business community: we should consider how to enshrine morality in our companies, not only so that we’re committed to doing the right thing at a corporate level.

More important even that is to shape the dispositions of our people, so they know how to live, and flourish, in the world.

Published: 20 March 2019

© Copyright Just Recruitment 2019

If you liked this article you may like to read – Ten of the most common “neuromyths”

You may also like to read – The knowledge: find out what you stand for

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