At the BEN-Africa Conference, held at KPMG in Johannesburg on the 19th of May, conference participants discussed four important questions regarding the priorities and needs of ethics officers and here is what they said.

What are the most pressing ethics challenges organisations face today?

  • Lack of focus on ethics (ethics not prioritised by leadership).
  • The challenge of societal ethics (e.g. corruption). The challenge relates to the attempt to act with integrity when unethical conduct is commonplace in the society in which one operates.
  • Diverse stakeholder expectations regarding ethics.
  • Lack of cross-border consistency on ethics.
  • 3rd party risk (the risk that 3rd parties associated with an organisation, through unethical conduct, exposes the organisation to risk).

What do ethics practitioners need to do?

  • Enforcing the Code of Conduct: on a compliance or directional level (laws and regulations), but also on the aspirational level (CSR, values, principles – beyond compliance).
  • Influencing leadership.
  • Creating awareness (promoting ethics) – internally and externally (external stakeholders).

What would ethics practitioners like to know?

  • How to work effectively in a strategic business context (as opposed to the operational level).
  • Understanding and managing change.
  • Guidelines, or a guidebook, for “tackling this beast” (setting up and effectively managing an ethics function).
  • How to go about decentring the management of ethics (into BUs and operating divisions) to achieve authenticity and influence.
  • Whether a different approach is necessary for managing ethics in the public and non-profit spheres.

What are ethics practitioners neglecting?

  • The gap between the professed ethics of corporations and the reality.
  • The risk of losing credibility when ethics practitioners…
    • preach rather than educate; and
    • focus on the negative (unethical behaviour) and neglect an articulation and a promotion of “the good”.
  • The risk of co-option (assimilation) – when an ethics function becomes so embedded in an organisation that it loses its critical voice and degenerates into mere compliance.
  • The risk of superficial systematisation, when the ethics practitioners becomes superficially adept in a variety of fields (industrial psychology, HR, compliance, culture management, journalism) but never develops a unique in-depth skill.
  • Ethics practitioners may neglect a “responsibility” to influence business ethics education (through guest lectures or participation in business ethics modules) – consequently, an attitude that “ethics is not really relevant” proliferates among business students.