This week, the Canadian Business Ethics Research Network is meeting at the University of Calgary to discuss leadership, ethics and energy.
CBERN is a national centre of excellence which brings together academics and business people to participate in dialogues about corporate social responsibility generally, as well as to deliberate on particular sectoral issues from time to time.
As a participant in this year’s energy and ethics forum, I was asked specifically to address the following question:
"In your experience, what ethical values or principles are key to building trust and what are key challenges to respecting and modelling those values or principles in business and business related activities?"
I believe that fundamentally there are three such values and although people may differ on exactly how these values are articulated, I would suggest that they might be meaningfully examined in the following ways.
• Integrity is clearly the most important and fundamental ethical value in building trust. Integrity is a complex value and requires the practice of other values such as honesty, fairness, authenticity, courage, openness, accuracy, truthfulness and intellectual and methodological rigour in any research activity or practice that is required for any knowledge creation that may be necessary to pursue for whatever objects that may be the goals of the business and business related activities.
• Accountability is another key ethical value in building trust. It requires accuracy, procedures and responsible management of those procedures, enforcement, prudence and transparent and open communication. It means more than passing an accountability act and then failing to follow it.
• Engagement is the third fundamental value. This includes the active, informed and voluntary consent of at least the most relevant stakeholders who may be affected by the endeavours of the business in question.
I also believe that the challenges to respecting and modelling those values are fairly obvious and evident.
• The threshold activities required to be true to these ethical values are in many cases onerous and may be financially exorbitant. Since the fundamental purpose of business is to be profitable, such activities may be at odds with the primary purpose of the business.
• There are large numbers of stakeholders who choose to be cynical and skeptical and will not believe the company is sincere and committed to these values even if the company chooses to abide by the values. The basis of their cynicism may be warranted because of companies in these or related industries that have been found frequently to engage in illegal or unethical practices in the past or present. Or the cynicism and skepticism may be based upon wilful ignorance or pessimism. This is the position of people who affirm the belief that business ethics is oxymoronic and that all business people are crooks.
• Some industries require technical and scientific knowledge that may be beyond some stakeholders’ abilities to comprehend and consequently makes it difficult to assess whether companies are acting from values of integrity, accountability and engagement. Surveys frequently illustrate that a high proportion of individuals have very little understanding of topics like nuclear physics, for example. Further, some individuals do not seek out information even through regular popular media like newspapers or magazines.
• Finally, defining communities of relevant stakeholders is, in itself, complex and frequently contested. And, members of the same community of interest may not agree.
The complexity of the requirements of ethical values and the necessity of operating in such a manner as to build trust does not diminish the requirement to do so in a civil society. This is particularly true with issues like balancing consumer demand for accessible, cost-effective and plentiful sources of energy and the competing demands for environmental sustainability. A dialogue about such issues is clearly necessary but not sufficient here or in many other contested areas of moral dispute.
» Deborah Poff is president and vice-chancellor of Brandon University. She is also editor of the Journal of Business Ethics, and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Academic Ethics. Her column appears monthly.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition May 12, 2012