30th Anniversary for Institute of Business Ethics

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Business by Tuncay via flickr

The Institute of Business Ethics has celebrated its 30th Anniversary by publishing a survey on how trust in business can be regained

The IBE publishes today a survey showing that companies are perceived by the public as only interested in profits and neglect their broader obligation to deliver value. This is seen as a key reason why business has failed to restore trust.

The financial crisis, corporate scandals and levels of public distrust have lowered the standing of business. It is no longer acceptable to say business is simply about generating profits for shareholders. Business needs to show how it contributes to social well-being wherever it operates.

If business is to regain public trust, the IBE report suggests, a new approach to business leadership is needed which is based on consensus building, the ability to embed values and connect business to society.

Philippa Foster Back CBE, IBE Director said: “The age of deference is over. A succession of scandals has undermined trust, and business is too often seen as purely interested in profit. Leaders who see themselves as individual superstars will not be able to deal easily with this. We need to look for new models – leaders who are connected with their employees and society and use this talent to facilitate good and sustainable results.”

In its first three decades, the IBE has focused on helping companies with the practicalities of taking an ethical approach. In reaching its 30th Anniversary, the IBE is reflecting on the business ethics challenges in today’s environment through gathering the views of others.

To help identify its priorities for the coming period, the IBE sought the views of opinion-leaders from various walks of life, including company chairmen and directors, the media and others involved in the business world, accountants and lawyers as well as its trustees and senior advisers.

Each respondent was asked to answer three questions:

1.Why can’t business rebuild trust with the public?

The lack of trust in business was frequently ascribed to the public perception that it was too focused on profit, the recurrence of scandals, controversy over executive pay and the taxation policies of multinationals. Business must become better aligned with the interests of society from which it derives its license to operate. Furthermore, boards must develop a more coherent sense of what their duties as set out in Section 172 of the UK Companies Act 2006 actually are. Profit becomes legitimate when it is earned through the delivery of real value and the genuine assumption of real risk. It is not legitimate when it is achieved by extracting value from the very customers it purports to serve.

2. What are the three biggest ethical challenges facing business?

The question about the three biggest ethical challenges threw up a multitude of answers. While some homed in on specific issues like remuneration, taxation, the supply chain, diversity and cyber issues, others offered a more overarching view, choosing to focus on the need to build consensus within the organisation, to embed values that support positive choices, to be more open and to develop a track record of sticking to principles.

Two themes stood out: customer focus and the need for statesmanship. Business needs customer champions within the leadership team so that leaders can see their business actions through the eyes of those who actually use their products.

As to statesmanship, it was critical for business leaders to be able to work with others to build the basis of trust. We need to redefine successful leadership – engaged with ethical values, less iconic and with strength of character.

3. What should the IBE do over the next few years?

As to future priorities for the IBE, there was a view that the IBE should be more vocal, do more to get ahead of the trend, to steer public debate, to help business engage with civil society and reflect an international view. It should tease out the looming issues facing business and seek to include the views of younger generations in thinking around ethics. It should be supportive of greater openness by companies, helping them to develop principles on which to base their activities and providing them with a safe environment where companies can come together and learn from each other.

The report – The Institute of Business Ethics: The next thirty years – will be launched at an anniversary breakfast to be held at the Mansion House on Thursday 27th October – 30 years to the day since the IBE was launched at the same venue. The Lord Mayor, Alderman The Lord Mountevans and Sir Gerry Grimstone, Chairman of Standard Life and Deputy Chairman of Barclays, will join Philippa Foster Back CBE to talk about the changing business ethics landscape and what the future might look like.

IBE’s Director, Philippa Foster Back CBE, said: “In response to the survey, the IBE has set out an ambitious programme for the next few years particularly in reaching out to new audiences, and new entrants to the workplace, drawing on their fresh approach to business and technology to help these with more entrenched views. There is much for us to do.”

Peter Montagnon, IBE Associate Director and the report’s author, said: “Business needs to do more to rebuild trust and secure its place in society. This is not just a question of addressing specific problems like remuneration and taxation, important though these are, but of instilling the right mind-set throughout business organisations. The challenge for business leaders is to develop a culture which takes their organisation beyond mere compliance with regulation. Companies wishing to thrive in the longer-term need a sense of purpose and a set of values that are aligned with society and the more demanding expectations of the public.”