Pushing the button on corporate responsibility

Lucy Murdoch, managing director, Global Corporate Citizenship Delivery with Accenture in Scotland, takes a look at the growing attention given to ethical issues.

Apple CEO Tim Cook, left, argues that all companies should have values. Picture: John Devlin.

People will choose brands whose beliefs they share. This sentiment, which has been steadily growing over the past couple of years, is now becoming more potent, not least because of the of the very public stories of the kind of corporate bad behaviour that many had thought were a thing of the past.

In 2018, we can now see that brands can rise or fall by their responses to world events. This in turn creates the potential for ethics as a business metric and at Accenture, we believe that the debate is moving us very firmly towards an ethics economy.

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Last year, Apple CEO Tim Cook said people should have values and as companies are no more than a collection of people, by extension all companies should have values. Speaking at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum in September 2017, he said: “As a CEO, I think one of your responsibilities is to decide what the values of your company are, and lead accordingly.”

His sentiment neatly highlights the new environment in which organisations now find themselves and how they must prepare to respond. Until recently, organisations have tended to be too reactive, changing policies only after it has been publicly shown that they have got things wrong, or responding to customer trends for ethically-biased products.

Customers have demanded brands do the right thing and inaction has proved dangerous. We have seen businesses in a number of industries, from travel to retail, face major backlashes when individual incidents hit social media and are seen by millions of people.

Now, organisations are realising they need a proactive stance on broader issues beyond the traditional corporate social responsibility agenda, such as data privacy, gender equality and what constitutes acceptable workplace behaviour. Customers and employees alike, expect them to have human principles and an opinion.

Looking forward, that means proactively bringing ethical beliefs to life is an important business principle. Increasingly, organisations must be seen to step up, take a stand on the issues that concern their customers and employees, and act accordingly.

Navigating this new territory successfully starts with preparing to have every action (and inaction) closely scrutinised. Organisations must interrogate their business practices to understand their own actions first. But they must also consider events outside their organisation so that they can make informed decisions on when and how to take a stand.

Next, an organisation needs to define and bring to life that renewed sense of purpose. Making your ethical positions relevant involves understanding your employees and customers to find shared values and desires. And the more your mission and values are embodied, the clearer it will be for you and your employees to take positive actions that reinforce them.

John Lewis recently did this by retiring “boys” and “girls” labels in children’s clothing simply because it believed this would be good for gender equality and diversity. Ikea has committed to employing refugees at production centres in Jordan as part of a long-term plan to create employment for 200,000 disadvantaged people around the world through social entrepreneurship programs.

Those are magnificent initiatives. It’s also important to let your employees connect with your culture. At Accenture, we have reinvented our Code of Business Ethics from a legal document into an interactive, mobile-first tool that helps our global workforce act with integrity. A chat-bot provides our people with an anonymous way to access the information and resources they need in the moments they need them.

Designed to support artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning capabilities, it surfaces real-time trends that enables Accenture to continuously tailor the bot’s responses and identify new topics and training opportunities. It helps to look at ethics in a new and more interactive way and builds our people’s decision-making skills in a rapidly changing digital environment.

Even as the world becomes more focused on digital solutions, we still recognise that an organisation will always be judged on its human response.

As more and more ethical issues are called out and put centre stage, no organisation will be able to afford to sit back and claim to be neutral. Instead, an organisation’s decision to demonstrate its values will become a key differentiator, meaning that ethics has the potential to become a business metric. We can expect new human metrics to emerge in addition to regular KPIs, and it’s likely we’ll start to see chief ethics officer roles created.

As a final point, this shift has coincided with a decline in people’s trust and faith in governments, creating an opportunity for businesses and other organisations to fill a gap. It is time to take a lead.