Ethical Skills in Insurance

Ethical skills in insurance allow people to make ‘doing the right thing’ an everyday part of their work. It moves them from ‘thinking about ethics’ to ‘doing ethics’, and leads to greater trust from customers and colleagues. There are three types of ethical skills:

And how these ethical skills are incorporated into a typical learning and development programme matters too. This is explored in ethics training below.  

There are of course very specific ethical skills needed in insurance, such as how to properly handle a conflict of interest. So how do those three types of ethical skills mentioned above fit in? They are, in effect, the foundational skills that people in insurance need to be confident at putting into practice. With that confidence, specific skills like handling conflicts of interest properly can then be built.

Remember that situations like conflicts of interest are not usually simple and straightforward. Handling them well relies on both knowledge of conflicts of interest mitigation processes, and ethical skills like resolving ethical dilemmas. The foundational skills and specific skills work together to prepare the insurance person for the wide variety of situations they will face.  

Ethical Decision Making 

Let's start with an obvious question. Do insurance people need ethical decision making? After all, they’re good people. Can’t they expect to recognise what ‘doing the right thing’ is, and then just do it?

The problem with this is twofold. Firstly, you won’t know whether the ethical situation is going to be simple or complex, isolated or the start of something big. You won’t know who’s watching, or who’s wants to get involved. You may not be sure what’s expected of you, or who you can turn to. You think you know ethics, but thinking is not enough. You need to know what to do with ethics.

The second problem is that when the narrative is all about ‘doing the right thing’, it becomes pretty important for your reputation, perhaps even your career,  that you don’t ‘do the wrong thing’. With insurance executives facing increasing levels of individual accountability, ethical decision making moves the insurance person from relying on intuition, to relying on knowledge and skills that have been practiced.

Insurance people can expect to encounter situations at work with an ethical dimension on a regular basis. So as you learn about ethical decision making, you’ll not be short of opportunities to put it into practice, and to learn how to get better and better at it.

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Ethical Dilemmas 

One of the skills that really benefits from practice is how to handle ethical dilemmas. These involve often complex choices around competing values, such as truth versus loyalty, or teamwork versus transparency.

Ethical dilemmas are not always easy and straightforward. After all, they wouldn't be singled out and called dilemmas if that was the case. And they're more common than most insurance people imagine.   

Take the phrase 'everyone else is doing it' as an example. Virtually all the insurance people I've trained in ethics have heard it as some point in their working lives. It presents you with two dilemmas. The first is between the client's interest and the firm's interest. And the second is between challenging the person using that phrase as an excuse for unethical behaviour, and just ignoring it.  

Tackling ethical dilemmas is made much easier if you have a series of steps through which to weight up the situation. Such steps prepare you to handle such situations with more confidence than others. And when people are watching, which is often the case with dilemmas, that confidence will be noticed.

Being prepared for ethical dilemmas needs to go beyond learning important steps though. It should also involve practicing what you’ve learnt with case studies and dilemma stories. A well written dilemma story will present you with an insurance scenario, relevant characters and a client or colleague situation. As the narrative unfolds, you have to make a series of judgements and choices to resolve it. They’re often a great way to spark a debate about a recurring issue in your firm. 

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Leadership on Ethics 

Leadership on ethics often struggles because people over rely on setting a personal example. They don't support that personal example with other steps. That’s not to say that setting a personal example isn't important. It obviously is - after all, without it, other people will take the cue and not bother either. So what are those other steps?

Leadership on ethics needs to be centred around a series of steps that mix vision and action. How to think of this is best illustrated through the notion of an ethics coach. The focus of the ethics coach is not on what they themselves do, but what they can encourage others to do, both individually and collectively. The impact comes from the team, and the ethics coach shows the team how to maximise that impact. It’s also a shared impact, coming more from the bottom up and less from the top down. The result is a shared achievement that others then add their support to.

Many people are surprised to find that the first of the five steps I emphasise for leadership on ethics is about learning the language of ethics. Yet think about it. How can you set an ethical vision, help people make ethical decisions, or help them tackle ethical hurdles, without the confidence to listen and speak about ethics.

In association with ethical decision making, and a confidence with ethical dilemmas, leadership on ethics completes the range of skills that insurance executives need to put ethical culture at the heart of their leadership.

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Ethics Training in Insurance

Most ethics training in insurance is undermined by two flaws: firstly, there’s a tendency to set standards, but not show people how to reach them. And secondly, there’s a tendency to  use a ‘great man’ approach, meaning ‘this is what I did, so you need to do the same too’. Neither help insurance people deal with the everyday nature of the ethical situations they encounter at work.

Ethics training needs to be focused on two things. Firstly, on the ethical risks that could undermine your firm’s plans. And secondly, on delivering the ethical culture your leader has set out in their vision for the firm. The more relevant ethics training is, the more people will learn from it. And the more practical ethics training is, the more people will apply it when back at their desks.

So while some ethics training can be generic (for example, about what ethics is and why it matters), most ethics training needs to be focused and practical. What I’ve found in the ethics training I’ve designed and delivered, is that a key part of the value people (and their firm) get from it is the discussion and debate, around concerns, about incidents, about support, and more. The two go together – focused and practical training encourages debate, for people to then take a stake in what they learn and how they’re going to apply it.