19. May 2021

Engage, network, learn: how Collective Action turns ethical dilemmas into practical solutions

A person wearing orange shoes standing on the ground. Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash.
The Institute of Business Ethics addresses complex ethical questions with its members – but keeps its feet firmly on the ground. Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

Our Collective Action team asked the London-based Institute of Business Ethics how it makes its research so practical and useful to decision-makers on the ground. Head of Research, Guen Dondé, explains:

Since its foundation in 1986, the Institute of Business Ethics (IBE) has always strived to be a safe space for organisations of all kinds to join forces and tackle the ethical issues they are facing.

Today, more than 30 years on, we can rely on an ever-growing community of Ethics and Compliance (E&C) practitioners who come together from different industries and help us to look at the challenges ahead, but with our feet firmly on the ground. We have always taken a very practical approach to how we do research, and our publications aim to be most useful to practitioners on the front line. 

Head in the clouds, feet on the ground

Philosophy, classical and modern, is an obvious starting point for those interested in understanding more about ethics and its implications for us as a society.

But what does ethics mean when it comes to day-to-day business practices and decisions? Very early on, we came to the realisation that this next step is usually missing. Often, the people on the ground find themselves struggling to reconcile the philosophical theories that they have learned in books with the reality of their daily job.

Our purpose as an organisation is to promote high standards of business behaviour based on ethical values. To achieve this, we don’t claim that we have all the right answers to any ethical dilemma that people might have. On the contrary. Resolving an ethical dilemma more often than not requires a lot of discussions, and internal and external consultations, in order to find the course of action that is most appropriate.

Our job is to facilitate those conversations and encourage E&C practitioners to share examples of good practice with their peers. Everything we do is informed and shaped by our engagement with our supporters, insight from our network and our own research into key trends and issues. We listen, distil and raise awareness by sharing the latest good practice through our publications, events, training and tools.

In our experience, there are three fundamental steps:

Step 1: Engage

Engaging staff and embedding ethical behaviour can be difficult. To help organisations to do this effectively, we play the role of advisor and critical friend by sharing insights and good practice gathered through our research and our network.

We can provide a wealth of practical experience in embedding business ethics and can offer guidance to organisations on a range of programme areas.

Step 2: Network

Corporate ethics roles can be lonely places and our communities are considered by participants to be valuable safe spaces where peer-to-peer learning can take place through the sharing of experiences and stories. Through the IBE, many have found a friendly ear or an encouraging challenge to help them take their programmes to the next level.

Conversations with this network also contribute significantly to the IBE's work programme by informing our priorities for future discussions, research, publications and events.

Step 3: Learn

We carry out regular research into business ethics issues and publish practical guidance, which is always developed working closely with organisations and experts in order to ensure that the output is helpful, relevant and easily accessible.

We also work collaboratively with other stakeholders and their representatives to ensure that we are up to date with the latest thinking and that a variety of perspectives is always considered when we develop our thinking.

We keep evolving and improving our approach: for example, in 2020 we instituted a new Supporters Forum annual event, where one of the goals was to learn about what research companies wanted to see. Our research agenda for 2021 reflects some of the outputs of this discussion.

Putting ethics at the heart of business strategies

The collaborative relationships we have nurtured with organisations of all sectors and sizes have been crucial to encourage businesses to put ethics at the heart of their strategy.

This is not just a question of addressing specific problems like environmental protection and the use of new digital technologies, important though these are, but of instilling the right mindset throughout business organisations. Companies increasingly understand that, to be successful, they need to deliver value (not just in financial terms) to their stakeholders and to society as a whole, from which they derive their licence to operate.

This is an ambitious but necessary objective that requires Collective Action and multi-stakeholder cooperation.