Promoting Ethics on the Front Line

The following post is by Guendalina Dondé, Senior Researcher, Institute of Business Ethics

Encouraging employees to ‘do the right thing’ and apply their organisation’s core values is of utmost importance. How can this be achieved in practice by organisations that employ thousands of employees around the world, who might have to make difficult decisions every day in their job?

The global nature of today’s business means that trying to embed a set of ethical values consistently throughout the company – and around the globe ­– can be a challenge.  Just as it is not enough to merely publish a code of ethics and hope that it will ‘stick’, simply translating a code of ethics is not enough to ensure that the ethical values of HQ are communicated effectively and meaningfully to staff in other geographies.

Embedding ethical principles for business conduct throughout an organisation so that they actually influence culture, decision making and behaviour can be a challenging and lengthy process requiring sensitivity, patience and resources.

An excellent way to meet this challenge is by using ethics ambassadors.

What are Ethics Ambassadors?

Ethics ambassadors are employees selected to assist senior management in promoting and embedding ethics policies, codes of conduct and other related policies. The post of ethics ambassador may be full-time or may be taken on in addition to an employee’s day-to-day job. Ethics ambassadors are not part of the ethics function but will normally be positioned throughout the company – across business units, geographical locations and/or the hierarchy of an organisation, and form an informal ‘network’ of diverse employees with similar responsibilities.

They can provide local knowledge, language and case studies to help make the ethics programme relevant to the needs of the local operating environment. This encourages buy-in from employees and decreases the likelihood of misconceptions which can arise from faulty translations or a clumsy choice of wording; historical context can be important to the perceived meaning of a word and taking this into consideration is best done by someone familiar with the local culture.

Ethics ambassadors can also act as a local point of contact, so if an employee has a query or an ethical dilemma they can talk to a local person rather than a telephone helpline or a more formal contact within head office. Ambassadors may also deliver training, record and report issues and occasionally help conduct investigations into unethical behaviour. However, as their name suggests, it is as advocates for the ethics programme that ambassadors are most valuable.  As Richard Bistrong noted in a recent blog, “It’s about integrating compliance into routine work and goals, as opposed to the corporate voice of ‘compliance from afar’.”

Establishing an ethics ambassadors network which is distributed across the organisation – geographically, departmentally and hierarchically – can help ensure ethical values are part of ‘the way business is done around here’.

Ethics ambassadors: an important element of the ethics programme

An effective ethics programme is paramount to support an ethical culture based on the company’s core values. Ethics ambassadors can help to broaden the scope of a company’s programme, reaching out further into the organisation and promoting core values at local level. A recent survey by the Institute of Business Ethics indicates that companies with ethics ambassador networks operate more comprehensive ethics programme than those without.

Main elements of the ethics programme in companies with and without ethics ambassadors

Companies WITH ethics ambassadors Companies WITHOUT ethics ambassadors
A global code of ethics (or equivalent document) 100% 100%
A speak up (whistleblowing) line 96% 94%
Internal reporting on ethics performance 96% 67%
External reporting on ethics performance 87% 72%
Employee training on ethics 96% 89%
An ethics monitoring programme 87% 72%
A board level ethics committee 83% 44%
A management level ethics committee 65% 44%
External stakeholder engagement 78% 61%

In both groups, the code of ethics has become an essential element of a company’s ethics programme and all respondents report that their organisation provides this sort of guidance to their staff. However, companies with a network of ethics ambassadors appear to adopt a more advanced approach to embedding an ethical culture.

In particular, companies with ethics ambassadors seem to place more importance on reporting on their ethical performance – especially internally. Ethics training is also more common in this group. These results support the idea that ethics ambassadors have an important role to play in raising awareness and enhancing employee knowledge, and the acceptance and implementation of the ethics programme. Similarly, it is important to note that for the ethics ambassadors to fulfil their role effectively, they need to be supported by a number of tools and mechanisms.

Setting the ‘tone from the top’

Consistent ‘tone from the top’ and senior leader engagement, especially in the boardroom, is crucial to ensuring that core values are embedded within business practice. This survey shows that boards of directors seem to be increasingly aware of their role in promoting and taking responsibility for the ethical culture in their organisation.

A similar focus on these topics at board level can be observed in both subgroups, although companies with a network of ethics ambassadors tend to discuss such matters in the boardroom more often.

Companies with a network of ethics ambassadors are also more likely to have a board level committee dealing with ethics and culture. Through these committees, the board takes responsibility for dealing with the broader questions of ethics and corporate responsibility, helping to address non-financial risks.

Senior leadership engagement

These figures can be read in parallel with other indicators of the commitment to an ethical culture by senior leaders. An important result that emerges from the survey is that in companies with ethics ambassadors the board and the executive team are required to undertake mandatory ethics training more frequently than in other companies.

In addition, more companies with ethics ambassadors report that they include ethical considerations in performance appraisals of the board (71% compared to 60% of companies without ethics ambassadors) and of the executive team (90% compared to 80% of companies without ethics ambassadors). This will help to improve the general perception of the company’s commitment to ethical standards and, ultimately, trust in leadership.

Although the general picture in our sample is positive overall, the slightly higher engagement at board level registered among companies with ethics ambassadors seems to have an impact on corporate culture. 96% of respondents from these companies report that their companies have a supportive environment for ethics, compared to 88% in the other group.

Similar results emerge with reference to the engagement at the top. Senior leaders are described as very engaged in 70% of cases in companies with ethics ambassadors, while only 60% of respondents from the other group are as engaged. Surprisingly, it doesn’t seem that there is a significant impact on the engagement of the general workforce which is seen as ‘very engaged’ in 40% of cases in both subgroups. This might signify that, whilst in some organisations there is a strong driver from the top to promote the ethics message, it might take time to produce a change in practice at all locations and levels.

Conclusion

Although ethics ambassadors can be found in very diverse organisations, the IBE survey highlights some features that such companies have in common. Ethics ambassadors tend to be more common:

  • among organisations with a large number of staff, as they bring local knowledge to the design and functioning of the programme as well as achieve greater consistency in its implementation;
  • in companies with a more mature ethics programme, where strengthening the ethical culture of the organisation is a priority;
  • where senior leaders seem to be more engaged with ethical standards and the board more involved in conversations on sustaining the organisation’s values and ethical culture; and
  • in companies that aim at engaging with all employees more closely and raise awareness on each of the main building blocks of the ethics programme.

Creating a culture of openness, where ethical dilemmas are disclosed and discussed will go some way to mitigate against integrity risk; ethics ambassadors may help mitigate that risk.

Further data can be found in the IBE’s latest Business Ethics Briefing.

The IBE Good Practice Guide Ethics Ambassadors provides a detailed description of what ethics ambassadors are and how they can be used effectively in promoting an ethical culture, giving guidance on creating and motivating a network of ethics ambassadors. It also includes a set of practical tools for training and evaluating the efficacy of ethics ambassadors.

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