What is ethics and why do we need it in business?

Milton Friedman famously discusses in his 1970 piece de resistance in the New York Times that a business has obligations to maximise profits and comply with the laws that created them. There are many proponents to this view. While on the other hand, others argue that to ignore the society in which your customers, employers, suppliers, and investors come from is to minimise the long term value of your business, and as such, business needs to be about more than just profit.

Then there’s the diversity angle. Should businesses run solely by merit as evaluated by traditional standards of performance? Or should businesses incorporate a subjective value on what might be important in the future, and build their teams based on this? Should every business and every person meet a set standard before being included or accepted?

I believe that ethics is something rooted in the future; about values that ought to be important, based on the best available current knowledge. This is why it has shifted and changed over time, and it will continue to evolve. 

I talk about my journey with developing ethical muscle in this episode, as well as the job I applied to that I believe meets my needs perfectly. At the time of this recording a few weeks before this episode’s release date, I’m still awaiting confirmation.

Show Notes

My Career Journal part 9

I grew up surrounded by religion, without religion being necessarily a part of my identity.

My paternal grandparents on the other hand who played a very significant role in my upbringing were very traditionally religious.

Sabbath began on Friday evening until 6pm Saturday evening where no secular work would take place.  

They would attend church or sabbath school on Saturday mornings for no less than 3 hours.

Daily worship would take place at dawn and dusk, and we would also say a prayer to give thanks with every meal. 

You could describe them as conservative, they were seventh day adventists, an evangelical protestant denomination that began in the US. 

My neighbours, who were the most influential female presences in my life outside of my mother and grandmother; 3 girls who lived next door, were roman catholic, along with a number of other families on my street. I would sometimes go to church with them also from curiosity.

At school I met Muslims and Hindus who became my best friends. They would invite me to attend Eid celebrations, or Divali, the celebration of lights.

I grew up as a result wholly curious about religion; almost like an ethnographer to a variety of religious experiences. 

I developed the skill of evaluating and weighing concepts of fairness, equity, justice, propriety, right, wrong, what is morally appropriate, from what is not, and how to look for the commonalities, as well as reveal their differences, and continuously annoyed everyone with questions of why.

Although I can never claim religion, those experiences, more than my academic training, prepared me to question and constantly interrogate what I considered fair, just and appropriate, and more importantly, it gave me important lessons about integrity and authenticity, as I felt I always had to explain why I held a certain view, that perhaps others would not associate naturally with me.

I understood a few things quite fundamentally; people without religion or belief in god, relied either completely on themselves, which seemed to me like a significant burden to carry, or they placed their trust in science, or they placed their trust in the media, or a combination of these.

I also understood that an ethical or moral compass is something that takes work to cultivate, from a combination of academic study, ethnography, science, religion, personal experiences, and the reasoning of others. 

I brought these blend of sources and qualities to every job I’ve ever had since.

As an accountant, I was the custodian of the company’s financial records, and the integrity of those records was paramount. As an auditor, I was accountable to the policies and standards of the company, and the audit committee that served the board. 

In my last years as an auditor, I began to understand my obligations to other stakeholders; society as a whole, from suppliers, customers, employees and citizens where the company I worked for traded, and the stakes began to get even higher for me.

I continued on to risk management, change management, continuous improvement, and now I consult on ESG and sustainability. I believe I am most myself, when I’m being the custodian of values which I hold dear. This is where I come alive; in defence of what I consider to be morally appropriate.

In school, and indeed in business, I’ve always been outspoken about the lines that I’ve drawn. It has not always brought a favourable or even encouraging response, but when it has, I saw myself grow, and when it hasn’t I saw myself shifting instead of compromising. 

Role number 4 that I interviewed for was for the position of Senior Global Business Integrity Manager for a FTSE top 10 company.

The interviews here went as you would expect; an HR screening, followed by a meeting with the line manager. At the time of writing this journal entry, I’m awaiting feedback. 

I spoke to a friend who worked at this company previously, who shared something quite poignant with me. FMCGs develop their business culture from the products they sell. If you work in fashion, the culture is to be fashionable. If you work in health products, your culture will be healthy. If you work in alcohol or tobacco, the culture is one of celebration and so on.

For me the main attractiveness of multinational FMCGs is that the culture in the head office is usually different from the regional and local offices, but that people are curious about each other. I’m utterly at home when I can ethnographically compare and contrast beliefs, ways of being and ways of thinking. Bring it on.

Next Friday, I share with you interview number 5, also linked to a global FMCG.