What makes for a successful ethics programme? Strong leadership and a clear ethical vision certainly help. Yet even the most ethical of leaders knows that it is unlikely to be all plain sailing.
Understanding the challenges that ethics programmes face can be just as important. And addressing those challenges before they have too great an impact can make a lot of difference to the eventual success of your ethics programme. After all, why run into a problem when you could just as easily run round it?
So here are 8 challenges that I've seen insurance firms encounter with their ethics programmes.
Ethics programmes can sometimes become overly bogged down in policies and processes. Most firms have more than enough policies already. The prospect of adding in more tends to result in the ethics programme being labelled as too complicated.
There’s often a view that once policies and procedures are in place, then with a bit of training, the job is done. Far from it. There aren’t that many people who change their behaviour and decisions because of an addition to the rule book.
Some ethics programmes start with too long a time frame. A year for example is too long time to sustain the momentum behind an ethics programme. It is a time frame over which change can be introduced, but it is also a time frame over which those changes can become diluted. What’s more, firms and markets often change over the course of a year, thereby reducing the apparent relevance of your ethics programme.
Some ethics programmes can be framed in a somewhat ‘pot half empty’ way. They refer to problems to be solved and challenges to be overcome. This can be a de-motivator, causing people to hold back. They'll wonder if they might get blamed or whether they’ll get anything out of being involved.
Some ethics programmes often start out with support from employees, but that popularity then dwindles or fizzles out. A key reason for this is lack of feedback. Some employees who make an effort never find out what affect it had, and so are never sure if that effort was worth it in the first place. They then suspect that nothing was likely to really change and so write off the whole process as a bit of a gimmick.
Other ethics programmes lose momentum because they’re not sufficiently connected into the reality of peoples’ everyday work. They’re conducted on too general a basis, or seek solutions that people can’t connect to the everyday tasks they perform at work.
Some ethical programmes run out of steam because the wrong person is put in charge of them. Does the person have the incentive to really tackle a tricky issue, plus the authority and skills to convince people to adjust to the necessary changes?
And finally, some ethical programmes fail because senior executives send out contradictory signals. One example of this is saying that ethics is fine so long as it doesn’t affect revenue. Another example is implying that ethics applies more to staff and less to executives. These are signs of problems in the firm’s ethical culture.
Some of these challenges will be easy to sort out from the beginning, while others will need attending to as the ethics programme gets going. What you shouldn’t do is assume that just because ethics is about doing the right thing, that the right thing will just get done. Ethics programmes deal with very human characteristics like behaviours and values, so they’re often going to face some tricky situations. A bit of preparation for the challenges that ethics programmes face will make a lot of difference.
Duncan is the founder of the Ethics and Insurance blog and the author of its many posts. He's a Chartered Insurance Practitioner, having worked 18 years in the UK market. As an adviser to many firms on ethics issues, as well as a regular conference speaker, he is one of the leading voices on ethics and insurance.