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Business And Individual Ethics: No Dividing Line

Posted on January 9, 2014 at 7:50 PM

I wrote this about business ethics on December 8th, bizarrely just before US President Barack Obama used the same story about Mandela, but  a little differently.

'In any discussion of how to re-establish society’s severely tested trust in business, it is a mistaken premise to separate an individual’s ethics from professional, or business ethics. The philosopher Wittgenstein wrote: “Willing, if it is not to be a short of wishing, must be the action itself. It cannot be allowed to stop anywhere short of the action.” To put it another way, let’s not wrap the nitty-gritty of our actions into some highfalutin words, call it ‘Ethics’ and serve it up as a main course.

A brief look back through the writing of some of our greatest moral philosophers on ethics reveals it was a debate that tended to get trivialised with language and at time, descended into pedantry. As Baroness Warnock, who taught Moral Philosopy at Oxford University for many years before entering the House of Lords put it in her book Ethics Since 1900 : “Deliberating, wishing, hating, loving, choosing: these are things which characterise us as people, and therefore as moral agents.”

It is not the perspective of the judge or the headmaster we want in professional ethics – it is that of the individual. ‘Goodness’ is often taken as the central concept of Ethics. But that, too, immediately elevates the term to a pedestal to which many people may not feel comfortable to aspire. It comes down, on one very basic level, to beginning from the assumption that all individuals are equal and tagging on the old adage– ‘treat other people as you would have them treat you.’

It is possible to translate that into business relationships, and also to treat any business itself as a disembodied individual, on whose behalf the senior management, board of directors and shareholders are acting. As we have been mourning the death of South Africa’s iconic leader Nelson Mandela, he has been exalted for his ability to bring people together and to work for a common good.

But the global swell of voices has also carried a shared celebration of the things that matter to us as human beings. Nelson Mandela’s ‘goodness’ did not stem from what, in retrospect, he achieved – but from the ethical stance he took every single time. So in that sense, what we have really been celebrating is a life lived with Ethics at its core every day, regardless of the personal cost.

On December 7, as Twitter resounded with memory, pain and celebration around #Mandela #Matiba, the award-winning legal blogger @JackofKent shared an Associated Press story with a twist. Journalists had found Christo Brand, Mandela’s jailer who was with him all the years the anti-apartheid campaigner was imprisoned on Robben Island. Mr Brand was 18 and Mr Mandela was 60 when they first met, and Mr Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison on Robben Island.

The gist of the story was that that the two men became friends, Mr Brand smuggled in special treats for the prisoner including his infant granddaughter so he could hold her – and they stayed in touch. After Nelson Mandela became President and was drawing up a constitution for the new democracy, they met again.

Reading the story, it seems clear that ‘freedom’ and ‘imprisonment’ had reversed their positions in the two men’s lives. Nelson Mandela was living a life of freedom that followed through from his own choices. All those years ago, Christo Brand was just ‘doing his job’ – and has ever since been imprisoned by that legacy - the ‘little treats’ he bestowed were his way of dealing with it.

It may not always be possible to fulfill a professional role and remain comfortable with what one is doing in a personal capacity, but there is always a choice. Those who pretend there isn’t, are spinning themselves a convenient web of self-delusion. The job of any good business is to ensure that both the goals of the individual employee and the business, are aligned. Where there is potential conflict, there must be systems built in to ensure that it is communicated without fear of redress.

When Nelson Mandela was forming that new constitution for South Africa, he turned to his “favourite judge” Mervyn King, a man who had resigned from the bench because he could not stomach either apartheid or the corruption he found in the judicial system. Professor King was the architect of the rules of commercial engagement in the new democracy and for the codes of corporate governance that have shaped its businesses ever since.

Today, as chairman of the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC), he is launching a framework for ‘integrated reporting.’ This offers a new way for business to chart its progress taking into consideration at each step the environmental, social and governance concerns, so that there is a clearer joined-up picture and fewer surprises.

In an interview for the FT – link above – Professor King described the corporation as a “disembodied individual” for whom its management was responsible. He gave it life and personality through the individuals who run it and work for it. It can only be as good as the sum of its parts. Integrated Reporting or <IR> seems to offer one way of reconnecting business with society.

Trust has been destroyed on many fronts since the financial crisis of 2008, with tax as the latest arena to offer up new stories every day. Even there, the public outrage has been greatest the closer the affinity between the individual and a business – such as Apple, for example (please note date of this post goes back to May) <IR> requires ‘integrated thinking’ looking at all the variables from input all the way to output in your accounting.

The City of London’s new Lord Mayor, Fiona Woolf, has described it as a “vision of enlightened capitalism.”  I would argue that it is the same process that is needed in every business to establish a professional code of ethics.'

I am publishing this today because I am on a panel later this month with Paul Druckman, IIRC CEO and others who do not know I wrote it and it gives everyone a chance to read it. Thank you for reading.

Categories: Governance, Ethics, Behaviour