The following is an extract from Jill Poet’s book, ‘It Really Is Just Good Business’. Below, Jill walks us through the common pitfalls of claiming ‘self-evident’ ethics, arguing that ethics alone is not enough in business.
Why ethics alone is not enough
Perhaps you already think you are a very ethical person operating a very ethical business. But that just might not be enough. Sometimes, adopting that stance is more akin to the ‘do no harm’ approach than proactively doing good!
Let’s dig a little deeper…
How do you define ethics? Quite simply, you can’t! No benchmark or defining line in the sand can dictate what is and isn’t ethical.
Let’s start by looking at definitions in the Concise Oxford Dictionary:
Ethical: ‘relating to morals.’
Morals: ‘conforming to accepted standards of human behaviour.’
Oh, my goodness! How in the world do we define ‘accepted standards?’
These will differ in every country, every religion, and every era in our rich history. What you might consider an accepted standard of human behaviour may be quite different from the views of your next-door neighbour; and even your life partner. And if you have children, their perception of acceptable standards of behaviour is no doubt vastly different!
So, who is right? Who is wrong?
Let’s put this in the perspective of the fashion industry.
You are undoubtedly aware of sweat-shop labour and the horrendous factory conditions in developing countries. You may remember the Bangladesh factory collapse. Or perhaps you have heard about the number of workers in cotton fields poisoned by heavy use of pesticides without being given appropriate protective clothing or are appalled by the cruelty of child labour?
I am sure you would not treat your employees in such a manner. I am sure that this isn’t something you would condone.
These practices are unethical, aren’t they? But they are nonetheless commonplace practices in the supply chain in the fashion industry.
Why? Because in the Western world, we have a seemingly insatiable desire for cheap clothing! Yes, we (and I include myself in this because I don’t hold myself out as a paragon of virtue) are quite possibly wearing clothes made by someone who has suffered appallingly in the process of manufacturing them.
Sorry, that is not a pleasant thought – but perhaps a necessary one.
Locating your business ethics
So, does that make us bad, unethical people? No, I don’t think so. However, giving more thought to our choices can often be a daunting challenge – although perhaps we might give our clothing purchases a bit more consideration in the future.
The point is that YOU must make your own decision about what ethical means to you. Draw your line in the sand. But once you have done that, stand by it; and continually strive to improve. Don’t ever let the line slip back.
We cannot be perfect, and we cannot change the world overnight, but we can take baby steps every day that can start to make a difference. Ultimately, we must hold ourselves to account and think about the broader picture of our actions.
Taking it a step further… don’t go it alone
A good example is membership of a professional body. Members of such organisations are invariably required to adhere to a Professional Code of Ethics. Looking at the ACCA as an example, the organisation has fully integrated the International Code of Ethics for Professional Accountants into their specific Code of Ethics, detailed in a comprehensive 331-page document. The fundamental principles of the code are:
- Professional Competence and Due Care
- Professional Behaviour
Although supplementary information about sustainability is on the ACCA website, nothing about making a positive societal impact is included in the main Code of Ethics.
The following case study illustrates why ‘being an ethical business’ is just not enough.
At the Organisation for Responsible Businesses, we always have a Zoom meeting with the business owner or a senior representative before we approve the membership to ensure the organisation fits the essence of the responsible business movement.
We do not expect perfection, but a commitment to considering people and the planet alongside profit is essential, even if that commitment is at a comparatively early stage of implementation.
Vera, not her real name, was a very pleasant lady interested in becoming a member of ORB. During our conversation, she explained that she had faced challenging times over recent years and was in the process of rebuilding her accountancy practice.
She was working with small traders and wanted to attract the bigger clients she had worked with in a previous company and, to do so, was building a new team.
We chatted for some time. But at no point did Vera talk about supporting her local community or a commitment to reducing environmental impacts.
When I asked the question, she stressed that her focus was rebuilding the business; she had been very altruistic in the past but could not be so now. She did not feel she was ‘any less environmentally friendly than most people!’
I attempted to elucidate the ‘doing good is good for business’ message and that proactively embracing responsible business practices would support her attempts at rebuilding her business, but my explanations fell on deaf ears.
When I gently explained that, unfortunately, she did not fit the membership profile, she was slightly surprised and repeatedly stressed that she operated a very ethical business.
I had no doubt that Vera did indeed run an ethical business based on honesty, integrity, professionalism and confidentiality, characteristics one would certainly expect from an accountant.
But in that instance, ethics alone certainly was not enough!
Take this with you
If you are that ethical businessperson, we hope reading this book will help elevate your business to another level and that soon you will be reaping the emotional, spiritual and financial rewards of being a more proactive ethical business, one that embraces a purpose-driven approach to making a positive contribution to society.
The world is not perfect, but we can make a difference, however small our business is. After all, over 5 million businesses in the UK are micro-businesses (employing 0–9 people), accounting for 33 per cent of private sector employment and 18 per cent of turnover.
Our actions may seem insignificant but collectively can make a massive change for the better.
‘Be the change that you wish to see in the world.’