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People expect the Church to talk about moral values but it is fascinating to observe that the world of business also uses spiritual, even religious, language. Businesses talk about the need for “vision” and having a “mission plan”. They are concerned about the “well-being” of their employees and emphasise “service” for their clients. Businesses often have documents that speak of their spiritual architecture.
There is more emphasis on the need for ethical behaviour in business today than ever before. While companies often speak about the values that underpin their philosophy and social purpose, recent events in the banking sector in particular have caused many to question whether businesses do behave ethically. We seem to have a financial system without adequate controls and the impression is sometimes given that some companies are run for the benefit of their top employees, who have enormous freedom to indulge in self-serving behaviour.
Too often, talk about ethics – about how we should live our lives, the kind of people we ought to be and the way we would like our communities to function – is regarded as irrelevant, pious or even weak. It is not seen as “businesslike” in a world where competition reigns and financial growth is the only marker of success.
That kind of dissonance between theory and practice has led to a public debate about ethical behaviour in the world of business. Simon Longstaff, from the St James’s Ethics Centre in Australia, working with Australian individuals, businesses and institutions, says six questions need to be asked:
● Would I be happy for this decision to be on the public record?
● What would happen if everybody did this?
● How would I like it if someone did this to me?
● Will the proposed course of action bring about a good result?
● What will the proposed course of action do to my character or the character of my organisation?
● Is the proposed course of action consistent with my espoused values and principles?
Meanwhile, in 2009, MBA students at Harvard Business School committed themselves to behaving ethically and responsibly by taking an oath, pledging that their purpose is to serve the greater good of society.
Two hundred and fifty business schools worldwide have also expressed an interest, which, at the very least, shows that many students feel there is a kind of moral gap at the heart of their business courses and, therefore, in businesses as a whole. Their feeling is that it is not enough to do an MBA without studying the principles on which a business ought to be run.
It is encouraging that those starting their careers are asking fundamental questions about principles and values.
Companies are social organisms, with a social purpose and corporate social responsibilities. These values affect everyone connected with the business. There has to be consistency of message and behaviour across the organisation for its mission to be effective. Often, however, in trying to increase productivity and hence profits, maintain a skilled workforce, remain competitive and anticipate trends in the market, this can take second place and sometimes be forgotten altogether.
But it ought to be a fundamental given that institutions are created for people, not people for institutions. The mechanics of an organisation are obviously important or there would be no business to run but the key component must be the development of a culture, customs, traditions and an ethos where people are valued. This means that the exercise of responsible, ethical leadership is crucial.
The questions proposed by Mr Longstaff and the principles of the MBA oath need to be taken seriously because they offer business an ethical foundation and framework for decision-making.
If adopted, an ethical perspective could become as second nature to executives as an economic outlook. That would make a radical difference to the way in which we conduct business because, in the end, conventional regulations cannot cure moral blindness or human greed.
Dr Barry Morgan is Archbishop of the Church in Wales
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