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Upholding a moral compass on business ethics

In today’s corporate world, what is the role of HR in upholding a moral compass on business ethics?

In today’s corporate world, what is the role of HR in upholding a moral compass on business ethics? Harvey Francis, Executive Vice President at Skanska UK, explains how learning from past mistakes can lead to a much brighter future.

For Skanska, it started with a crisis. In 1997, our business in Sweden experienced a major environmental breach on a tunnelling project. The incident poisoned the local water table, leading to the death of fish and cattle. We were front page news for all the wrong reasons, seriously damaging our reputation.

It was a wake-up call for the company and we were determined to learn from it. The incident sparked the start of our sustainability journey and a broader recognition about ‘doing the right thing’ in business.

A good ethical approach has to be practiced every day and become part of the company culture.  When, in 2002, our Swedish operation discovered that procedures on a project were not being followed, it led to a deep-rooted global review. As a result, we pulled out of Russia and an ethics based training programme for all employees was introduced.

This shows that, at heart, ethics is all about people – how they behave and the decisions they make. HR has a huge role to play, helping to embed the right values and culture. We need to make sure that at all times we act with honesty and integrity, whether that’s at boardroom or site level.

HR has a key role in driving our approach to ethics, from the point of recruitment, through the time that each employee spends with the business and beyond. Our aim is to hire people who want to work for a values driven business like Skanska; retain them because they buy-in to our ethical approach and, when they move on, talk about us as a great company. 

That approach starts from the top. Last year, our global business introduced an Ethics Roadmap. This sets out our vision for ethics, combined with practical steps that help us to improve our culture and the way that we operate in the market. A senior level Ethics Champion in each country is responsible for rallying the national business behind this vision and driving the development of an ethical culture.

There are many examples of how we’re putting this into action. At our UK management conference in 2014 we brought ethics to life with the help of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). They acted out ethical dilemmas based on the themes of harassment and discrimination. More than 100 of our senior leaders debated how ethical issues can be seen from legal, media and employee perspectives.

It sparked fantastic debate and encouraged our most senior leaders to think differently about ethics, and then spreading this learning to their teams.

To help encourage debate, we run regular ethical dilemma discussions for all employees – not just our managers. At least four times each year, everyone takes part in business related ethics discussions in their teams. There are not always right or wrong answers. The point is to build understanding and get people comfortable talking about sometimes difficult issues.

Training can help us to recognise when something is right or wrong. We run Code of Conduct training for all new recruits and, every two years, a refresher for all existing employees. It’s one of our KPIs. In our most recent round of training this summer, we achieved 99% completion – with the final 1% now being completed. The training is mandatory for all employees, at all of our sites and offices, so it’s a huge achievement.

We need our people to understand the expectations about how we work, which training can help embed. It’s also about feeling confident to discuss ethical issues and speaking up when something feels wrong. We often refer to the ‘notice-board’ test. If you wrote a decision you’re about to take up on a public notice-board, would you feel comfortable with it?

This has really helped to create a culture where people have the confidence to speak up about their concerns and know they will be acted on in a safe environment. We follow up every report and communicate outcomes directly and also within the wider business so we can learn and grow from them, and be transparent in doing so.

Driving strong ethical values throughout our company makes complete business sense. We want to attract the best people to work for us as well as be a company that clients want to do business with – both now and in the future.

There’s no doubt that we’re on a journey. We are not the finished article, so we always have more to do. What we can honestly say, however, is that we’ve learnt from our past, put in place a fantastic platform and created the tools that will help us to establish a best in class ethical culture.

Article supplied by Ashley Kate HR

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