One lesson for everyone looking at ethical risks

  • 27 November 2014

Understanding the ethical risks faced by your firm is fundamental to the success of any ethics programme. Yet if you’re tasked with conducting that ethical risk assessment, there’s one big problem you have to face: you may have a good sense of what the firm does and what its people get up to, but you alone cannot see, or weigh up the significance of, all that happens. So what do you do?

It can be neatly summed up in one word: listen. OK, it’s neat, but not necessarily that simple! You need to go out and hear what people have to say about what the firm does and what its people get up to in pursuit of its goals. Yet we all know it’s not so easy to get people to talk about ethics or misconduct. People don’t always feel comfortable or confident to talk about how they go about their work.

I’ve heard of one person who sets up meetings with those he wants to listen to, but leaves the most problematic of them until the end of the day, on the expectation that he’ll be able to guide the conversation towards an after work drink, whereupon the other person is bound to open up and air the most troubling issues. That approach isn’t feasible for everyone, so what else works?

An offer of confidentiality can help, but only to a degree. If the behaviours that could emerge are too out of line with your firm’s expectations (and it’s those you most want to get to), then confidentiality will have only a limited appeal. So again, what else works?

An approach that I find works well relies upon people invariably being happier to talk about the questionable behaviour of others, rather than discuss any questionable aspects of their own behaviour. It’s something we’re all prone to – certainly each of my daughters think it’s something I’m prone to (not that I would always agree with them of course).

Research tells us that people tend to be overly optimistic about their own ethical behaviour, but surprisingly accurate about the not so ethical behaviour of others. Think back to this earlier blog – even good people can have a tendency to neutralise what they get up to.

And it was a lesson firmly driven home for me when I ran my first ethics workshop many years ago, in which the HR manager, present as an observer, couldn’t help saying “you’re surely kidding, aren’t you” on more than one occasion, as the lid was lifted on highly questionable behaviour by some account executives, recounted by a small group of operational managers.

Let’s end by taking this one step further. Your ethical risks need to influence your ethical objectives. Remember that we have an innate tendency to be overly optimistic about our own firm’s ethical performance and so run the risk of setting weak or incorrect objectives. The result is a dud ethics programme, at risk of being labelled as a waste of time.

So how do you correct for this? By doing exactly what we’ve talked about earlier: listen to someone else’s opinion. Open up your ethics plan to informed feedback from a critical friend.