An important lesson for insurers to learn about their codes of ethics

  • 20 June 2018

Codes of ethics exist for a reason. They tell people about the commitments a firm has made in relation to ethical issues and how the firm will uphold them. Yet this raises obvious questions. Who are those people? What are the commitments being made? And what support is being provided?

I’ve just completed a small but detailed review of the codes of ethics in use amongst well know UK insurers. Ten insurers were chosen and a survey conducted at arm’s length. This helped replicate what consumers would experience, rather than just an ethics person like me.

The results were in places sometimes startling, sometimes heartening. Each of the insurers in the review had their own approach, which is absolutely fine and to be expected. Yet several of them missed out on features that a good code of ethics would cover. A personalised approach is fine, but not if quality is the price.

In this post, I’m going to focus on one of the key findings of the review: accessibility. And in two subsequent posts, I’ll move onto what was found inside the codes themselves. You'll be able to access the full review in  the third and final post. 

Accessibility

The accessibility of a code of ethics is directly linked with the audiences that a firm expects for its code. So if a firm see only people within the firm as the audience for its code, then it will tend to only make it available within the firm itself. Yet that’s a dangerously narrow view of a code’s audience.

Think of what a code of ethics is there to achieve. A firm uses a code of ethics to make clear what is expected of its people in relation to ethical issues of importance to the firm. This then begs the question – what ethical issues? Easy - the ones that emerge from how the firm goes about its business. Next question – what sort of impacts, and on whom? Easy again – the people with whom the firm engages, and on the outcomes they experience.

What is clear from this is that customers are very definitely another key audience for an insurer’s code of ethics. It is after all they who experience most of the outcomes of the decisions (ethical or otherwise) that people in the firm take.

Customers as a Key Audience

So on the basis that customers are a key audience for insurers’ codes of ethics, then this should point to those codes being easily accessible to them. That was far from the case. Only two insurers had their codes easily accessible online. Well done to them. Two more insurers released their code after I approached their contact services. The rest required repeated requests, which in three cases resulted in questions about why I needed to see their code. They released the codes in the end, but not before leaving the impression of being defensive about their ethical commitments.

Let’s be clear - insurers have to be open and honest about their ethical commitments. A code of ethics tucked away from public sight is of little value. Share it; listen to what people say; learn from that; improve. It’s a basic way of building trust in your firm.

Corporate Chartered Firms

One surprising finding from the review concerned insurers holding the Chartered Insurance Institute’s corporate Chartered title. More than half of the insurers who provided their  code of ethics after two or more requests were Chartered firms. Given that firms awarded the corporate Chartered title give a public commitment to uphold the highest ethical standards, there’s clear work to be done there.

Customers have to be recognised as a key audience for the ethical commitments and achievements of insurers. The starting point for such recognition is the small but significant step of making codes of ethics available, and easily found, online.