One thing is clear, we are working at a time when the world needs ‘ethical working’ and ‘corporate responsibility’ to be lived out meaningfully. The luxury, if there ever was one, of relating to these terms in merely academic ways simply does not exist anymore. This is true, of course, for reasons pertaining to internal and external comms – if your brand is not seen to be ethical and responsible, your relevance wains. But it is also important, and more intrinsically so, because of reasons surrounding the well-being of your people. No one wants to exert themselves for an ignoble cause, and trying to do so grates on one’s sanity. As Viktor Frankl [BJ1] reminded us, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’”.
And yet, the ‘how’ of ethical working and corporate responsibility can prove challenging. While the value of these ‘goods’ is likely uncontentious, how might we actually understand and enact them?
Here’s one suggestion for how HR Directors might take the lead on ethical working and corporate responsibility: Recognise that corporate responsibility boils down to culture while ethical working is all about learning and development – two things squarely within your remit.
Here’s how we get there…
In philosophy, there is a distinction between morality and ethics. Morality boils down to the ‘rules of the game’. They are a set of socially constructed norms that guide how members of that society ought to behave. Likewise, being ‘moral’ just means adherence to the rules of the game. As such, corporate responsibility is all about businesses being moral. It is focused on the ways in which organisations align their internal cultures with the socially constructed ‘rules of the game’ governing the markets in which they operate.
Ethics, however, is a different kettle of fish.
While it is completely normal for people to talk about morality and ethics as if they are the same thing, in fact they are not. Ethics critiques morality. If morality is the rules of the game, then ethics is all about getting curious and asking, ‘Have we got the right rules for the game?’. Simply put, morality is about adherence to a given culture while ethics is about developing that culture.
Seen through this philosophical lens, businesses and society alike need both ethical working and corporate responsibility. HR is perfectly positioned to help operationalise both. By working to align corporate culture with the morality of the markets in which you operate you are robustly contributing to corporate responsibility. Equally, by creating opportunities for learning and development to reach beyond professional skill capacity and into moral progress you are fostering the very heart of ethical working.
It is not easy work and it takes courage, but then who wants to get out of bed for anything less?
Here are three questions to ponder as you work on reframing ethical working and corporate responsibility with your teams:
- Beyond our corporate values statements, what ‘rules of the game’ are operating in our business?
- Where do our internal rules of the game align with those operating outside our company? And where do they diverge?; and
- How might we help our colleagues see ethical working as a positive building project rather than a matter of ‘toeing the line’ and ‘getting things right’?
Dr. Brennan Jacoby, Philosopher and Founder – Philosophy at Work