Skip to main content
Connect Online Research Creating an Ethical Culture

Creating an Ethical Culture

Building an ethical culture has never been easy. But in a world dominated by post-truth, abuse of political power, corporate wrongdoing, corruption and deliberate misinformation, ethics, morals and the truth are increasingly under pressure. If we don't agree – or care – about what is true, how can we identify what is ethical? Dr Ian Kidd and Dr Mark Lovatt (Philosophy and Theology, 1993) share why creating an ethical culture matters.  



"Business integrity is extremely important as business reaches into every area of our lives," said Mark, Chief Executive Officer of Trident Integrity in Malaysia, a leading edge consultancy which implements corporate integrity systems. "We rely on businesses to feed us, warm us, connect us to other people, assist with our health, entertain us, and bury us when it's all over. If the operation of the business sector is unethical, at each of these stages there is an opportunity for exploitation and misery. Plus corporate scandals can severely damage your bottom line and destroy your reputation overnight."

Yet one in five of all British employees say that they are aware of misconduct at their workplace, according to the 2015 Ethics at Work Survey carried out by the Institute of British Ethics. Eight out of 10 say their organisation provides a confidential means for staff to raise their concerns, but 61% of those who did raise concerns were dissatisfied with the outcome, up from 30% in 2012. 

"Humans are moral and social creatures," said Ian, Assistant Professor in the University's Department of Philosophy. "But if you live in a corrupting society which puts pressure on that morality, you begin to have anxieties. If the distinctions between virtues and vices, truth and untruth, reality and illusion, are eroded then you genuinely don't know whether you're living an ethical life because your values are being placed in a bizzare cultural acid bath."

One in five of all British employees say that they are aware of misconduct at their workplace.

"Why people cheat can vary a lot from one context and culture to another, but there are commonalities which puts ethics under pressure," adds Mark. "Tackling bribery in all forms is a major issue – as it drives unfair competition and often forces the hand of employees into maintaining the corrupt system. Peer pressure is another factor – the need to be seen to do well by having high value assets which secure peer approval is a strong driver to bend the rules to our own ends. Finally, unfair rules and systems are breeding grounds for corruption. Tax can be a good example – in some countries, it's easier to pay the bribes if you are caught being fraudulent than trying to behave with integrity in an unworkable and biased system."

So what constitutes an ethical culture and how do we create one? Ethical organisations drive up and maintain standards by having leaders who consistently act with integrity, deliver open and honest communication, and create a safe environment where people are empowered to speak up. While processes and compliance clearly have a role to play, successful ethical cultures look beyond procedural change and focus on driving cultural change at all levels in the organisation. 

Ian sums up: "Ancient Chinese philosophers had a motto which said that ethics always arrive too late. As soon as people start to talk about duty, virtue and rights, it's because those things have already started to go wrong. But the very fact that we're discussing why creating an ethical culture matters is a reason for optimism."

Six key traits of ethical leaders 

1. Establish clear values, purpose and strategy – on what is and isn't acceptable.

2. Consistently model good behaviour – demonstrating values in actions and words.

3. Ensure people feel responsible and accountable for their actions – use training to develop ethical decision-making skills.

4. Hire people with the right values and skills – fire those who break the rules. 

5. Give timely, effective and encouraging feedback – don't punish mistakes. 

6. Reward people for doing the right thing – remember it takes courage to raise concerns. 

How business can combat corruption

In 2015, Mark gave a special guest lecture at our Malaysia Campus, addressing corruption in the business sector. You can watch the full talk below.