Ethics: Honesty is the best company policy

Turn words into deeds, says Alan Tapnick

May 11, 2011

Recently, a senior employee in a law firm asked for advice regarding a disturbing practice among some of the firm's partners. This behaviour, while not illegal, was certainly not ethical, so I suggested he look at the company's ethical policy. On the firm's website for all to see was an ethical policy so virtuous that it would have made Moses proud! But clearly it simply was not being adhered to or implemented. This is not uncommon. There are probably more companies out there paying lip service to their own value statements than actually living them.

It is not enough to prepare and publish an ethical policy - you have to really mean it and you have to live it. The leaders of a business are key to really making ethics part of their enterprises' company culture, and senior executives who lead by example will find they can actually change the landscape. Druker puts it thus: "CEOs set the values, the standards, the ethics of an organisation. They either lead or they mislead."

Too much time is spent trying not to fall foul of the FSA's Regulators' rules and similar codes of conduct, rather than pro-actively building a reputation for the company that it will stand and fall by.

Enter Good Business Practice.

Good Business Practice (GBP) was created by JABE (the Jewish Association for Business Ethics) to promote ethical behaviour in business, through membership of GBP. It provides CEOs, senior partners and business leaders with materials and practical advice to embed ethical principles into their organisations. This is achieved through:

Concentrate on creating the right culture in your business and let the watchdogs find other cats to chase

● Senior-level training with realistic and practical information for the embedding and communication of ethical practice within an organisation.

● Guiding principles for the ethical conduct of business.

● Self-assessment toolkit to test the implementation of ethical processes.

● Exclusive senior-level forums where members can discuss topical ethical issues.

Some have accused the proponents of ethical business of naiveté. There will always be dishonest people in the world, they argue, and no amount of ethical training will rid society of that scourge.

They may be right that rotten apples are a fact of life, but that does not absolve the rest of us from behaving ethically. Being shrewd and canny should be no impediment to being decent and moral.

There are two compelling reasons for developing an ethical culture in the workplace. The first is the ethical imperative, where personal integrity is not motivated by the effects your actions will have, but is rather guided by an intrinsic desire to act honourably, to do what is right. Here you leave the bark and bite of the watchdogs to deal with the wrongdoers in society and focus instead on your own actions.

The second reason is the notion that good practice spreads. The influence on a company at large depends on the culture set by the chief executive.

Companies need to make a person at board level responsible of its ethical direction and should appoint an ethics director. Senior executives can and will influence others and thereby create a groundswell in the organisation that will spread throughout. Other companies can then be brought together to agree on a code of good business practice. And once involvement grows to comprise a critical mass of companies, good business practice will take on a momentum of its own.

It may take time to see a real sea change in the business world, but making your own business more ethical is certainly a realistic goal. Concentrate on creating the right culture in your own business and let the watchdogs find other cats to chase.

Alan Tapnack is chairman of Good Business Practice and former director of Investec Bank plc. Good Business Practice provides CEOs and senior partners and their organisations with a set of guiding principles for ethical business behaviour. Its mission is to promote ethical behaviour the guiding principles and senior-level training. For membership details of Good Business Practice for your firm or company, call 020 8958 5134

Last updated: 5:00pm, May 11 2011