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WHAT IS IT THAT ATTRACTS us to a certain brand or company? It may be the latest advertisement, some revitalised packaging or maybe an unusual style of communication to its customers.

Whatever it may be, deep down we will already have operated a different and all-important feature to reassure ourselves that, behind the glitz, lies an ethical company whose word we can trust.

Most of us will have observed that a corporate culture usually emanates from the style set by its senior officers: if the man or woman at the top behaves with consideration and affords everyone respect, other employees all the way down the food chain can feel confident that they too can operate in a considerate fashion.

We know, don’t we, that aggressive behaviour doesn’t breed lasting success and yet, in companies where the senior executives act in such a fashion, everyone else feels compelled to follow suit or leave. In such ways are corporate cultures shaped over time.

Some of the world’s biggest companies make a great show of their ethics and values and expect their employees dutifully to sign them, personally endorsing a corporate culture that, sometimes, goes little further than that piece of paper but, in the main, companies are ethical businesses run by decent people.

Why then do so many companies suffer corporate ethical failures? Clearly, it takes more than a corporate requirement to box-tick a policy statement to provide an ethical workplace.

Such failures are now relatively common and they have lasting repercussions that may go way beyond the memories of those involved, creating a maelstrom of damage that would forever be associated with the company’s name.

At the same time, governments around the world have noticed the corporate ability to pay swingeing fines and penalties for ethical and associated breaches in a process that demonises the errant corporation far beyond what just retribution and the refund of fair damages might require.

Difficult environments

It would seem likely that some companies are creating working environments where people are, at best, finding it difficult and, at worst, impossible to meet the ethical standards that are expected because of a pervasive corporate behavioural culture.

How many of us have worked in an environment where unrealistic sales targets are driven with relentless pressure? If I were to be truly honest with myself here, I recall an occasion, around three decades ago, where I simply passed such pressure down the line in a selfish act of survival.

I look back at that with no great sense of pride but the alternatives were equally reprehensible; I could have cut a few corners, loaded the pipeline and met my figures in a short-lived flurry of success or I could have fudged the figures and hoped that I’d found another, better job before the truth was revealed.

Instead, I chose to bully someone else, passing on the same corporate behavioural norm as an example to a younger person. Shame on me.

I’ve heard many people, commenting on the reports of abuse by celebrities in the 1960s and 1970s, use the caveat that life was different then, making it somehow excusable, and it’s tempting to suggest that an earlier corporate cultural norm negates many more modern concerns, but that doesn’t really hold water.

A toxic culture

If junior staff are encouraged to achieve directors’ bonuses by any means, fair or foul, it sets a persuasive example of a toxic culture which then legitimises all kinds of other creative solutions to the challenge of keeping one’s job.

Part of the problem of instilling a corporate culture is that it requires that culture to be enacted daily as part of everyone’s normal behaviour. Damage limitation is a catch-all phrase for mopping up after the floodgates have burst yet, for many organisations, ethical policies are there to be seen by all and observed as one of a number of options.

To make a company ethical is to plan out its lasting reputation and to have all employees regard that reputation as being similarly sacrosanct to their own. That requires positive action from the top down and a widespread understanding that taking short cuts, the massaging of truth to avoid an unpalatable incident in everyday reporting or exerting undue pressure through line management, is absolutely unacceptable.

For many of us, the word “absolute” has taken on a somewhat flexible nature – not unlike post-truth politics – if the prize is great enough.

Where the integrated use of technology and advances in IT allow organisations to set an ethical pathway, in silicone rather than stone, they must also ensure that someone is scrutinising the human activity that accompanies it.

It is not unusual to see terminology like “compliance” viewed as a hurdle to be overcome rather than a necessary gatekeeper of corporate reputation. Ethics are not a relative commodity and, as leaders, we have a responsibility to ensure that the messages we send are appropriate and orchestrated with the policies that our customers – both external and internal – expect of us.

We live in a time of widespread mistrust that is not limited to the actions of politicians and bankers. Regrettably, a 24-hour newsfeed is hungry enough to devour anyone, except its own.

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