Are your firm’s values less ethical than you think?

  • 19 October 2016

Ethical dilemmas provide great material for use in corporate training, for they can easily be tailored to reflect the learner’s work environment, while also presenting options that can challenge pre-conceptions and question ‘the way things get done round here’.

And a frequent question they often raise is about the firm’s values. To a large degree, this is to be expected, for the definition of an ethical dilemma is that they arise from a tension between two or more values. Yet the question that most often raises eyebrows is not about there being values in tension in the first place, but where those values come from. They’re often found entirely within the firm itself.

While speaking at a recent insurance conference, I showed to those attending a set of values used by a leading UK insurer and asked them to tell me which ones were business values and which ones were ethical values. Their response was interesting, for while only one of the five values was in fact an ethical one (the rest were business values), the conference attendees were seeing two or three of them being ethical ones. And so I repeated the exercise with another set of values and got much the same result. Firms can often be surprised about how few of their corporate values are in fact ethical ones.

Why is this the case? Well, I suspect that many insurance firms find it easier to talk about business values like innovate and teamwork, and harder to talk about ethical values like integrity and trust. This is a problem they need to tackle, for to be able to show leadership on ethical issues, insurance executives need to be able to speak the language of ethics in the first place.

They also need to be careful when talking about values per se. I often hear chief executives talk about their firm’s values as a sort of ethical safety net for when difficult situations have to be faced, without realising that only a small fraction of their firm’s values have anything to do with ethics.

The implications for the ethical dilemmas being faced by insurance people at work are clear. It is far easier than most people would expect to find one of their firm’s values in tension with another of its values. This makes ethical dilemmas more common than most people would expect.

And unless your firm takes a positive view on them (they’re situations, not accusations), and teaches its people how to resolve them, then one consequence will be more whistleblowing.

Whistleblowers often talk about being caught between loyalty and truth. Translate those into popular corporate values and what they’re talking about is a tension between teamwork and integrity. This points to many insurers have corporate value statements that have an inbuilt tension already within them.

Resolving such a tension involves practicing at ethical dilemmas, but also opening up those values for discussion and elaboration, so that they turn from being cute sound bites for use in public relations, into meaningful guidelines for behaviour and decision making.