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“Don’t be evil” – Walking the Talk

September 26, 2012


‘Learning from the best in the private sector’ is a key message from the Prime Minister in the Government’s new plan for reforming the Civil Service.   ‘How does that translate in the field of ethics?

We know that some parts of the private sector have certainly picked up on the idea that ethics can be good for shareholder value.  Some companies have translated this into a focus on corporate social responsibility –using fairly traded goods or time off for staff doing charity work. Others have thought about promoting high standards of ethical behaviour in the way they do their core business. This has often meant establishing clear values – few simpler than Google’s informal corporate motto “Don’t be evil” – and codes of conduct for their staff.  Some have gone further, incorporating ethical standards into their staff recruitment and assessment processes, and asking their boards to identify and monitor ethical risks.  Can you give us specific examples of where the private sector has driven high ethical standards and how they’ve done it?

On the other hand, recent scandals have cast a different light on ethics in at least some parts of the private sector.  The Leveson Inquiry has been highlighting  indefensible media practices. And it is not just the ‘Libor’ scandal which has raised deep questions about banking.  As the Chair said in his opening blog, many of the banks had great codes of conduct for their staff, but unethical behaviour still went on.  Perhaps the lesson we all need to learn is that processes, while important, are not enough to keep standards high.  What is needed is the right ethical culture, supported by strong leadership.  It’s an easy statement to make and plenty of organisations ‘talk the talk’ – what does it mean in practice? 

 Richard Thomas

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