Ethics and values in the workplace and society

As the Comino Foundation’s consultation programme on attitudes to industry reached its conclusion in the mid 1990s, ethics and values in the workplace and in society remained an important issue.

In February 1996 a consultation for mid-year high flyers in industry expressed concern about the ethics and values which seemed to be adopted by industry leaders. Independently, Dr Nicholas Tate and Sir Ron Dearing of the Schools’ Curriculum and Assessment Authority set up the National Forum for Values in Education and the Community and circulated a discussion document on its findings.

The Comino Foundation considered what role it should play in this debate. In 1997 the IoD (Institute of Directors) annual conference highlighted the need for the Institute to consider the role of ethics and values in business, and the Honour Underpins Business (HUB) project was initiated. The Foundation provided a grant which helped support a HUB IoD conference and a National Opinion Poll survey on the perceived importance of ethics and values in business. This survey confirmed that ethics and values had an important role to play in the effective management of companies. Subsequently the IoD ensured that events which focused on promoting ethical standards and values in business were included on a regular basis in IoD member programmes. In 1999 the IOD, under Tim Melville-Ross its Director General, initiated the Chartered Director qualification which included, as part of its Code of Conduct, a requirement to adhere to ethical principles in business. 2011 saw the number of directors receiving this qualification exceed one thousand.

Meanwhile, in 1990, the Institute for Global Ethics (IGE) had been founded in the US by the American journalist and writer, Dr Rushworth Kidder, and a separate UK Trust was set up in 1995 as a registered charity, with Sheila Bloom as Chief Executive. The core mission of both the Institute and of IGE UK is ‘to promote ethical behaviour in individuals, and cultures of integrity in institutions and nations, through research, public discourse and practical action’. Early activity by IGE UK coincided with the setting up of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in October 1994 under Lord Nolan. This committee debated with IGE UK whether the terms ‘values’, ‘ethics’ and ‘morals’ could be used in public discourse. It emerged that there was some similarity between the ‘Seven Principles of Public Life’ on which his committee was basing its work, and the ethical values commonly agreed upon by participants in IGE’s Ethical Fitness® Seminars. These values reflect five core concepts – honesty, respect, fairness, compassion and responsibility – all of which Dimitri saw as important. In 1996 the Comino Foundation sponsored a gathering for ethics practitioners and was there introduced to IGE UK. The main outcome of this consultation was the setting up of the RSA Forum for Ethics in the Workplace, which the Foundation part-supported. Anna Comino-James and Sheila Bloom served for four years on the Forum’s Steering Group at the RSA and helped plan a regular series of topics and speakers. This Forum was later transferred to the Institute for Business Ethics.

The Comino Foundation invited IGE UK to convene a consultation at St George’s House in May 1998 on ‘Common Values for the 21st Century’. A Trustee from the Aberdeen-based Gordon Cook Foundation participated and discussions identified that the two foundations had similar objectives regarding ethics and values and should explore possibilities for joint working with IGE UK. The outcome was the IGE UK ‘Personal Responsibility’ project which was jointly funded by the two foundations.

The vision of the Personal Responsibility project was ‘a society in which people throughout the United Kingdom feel encouraged and empowered to exercise personal responsibility as individuals and in their local and wider communities’. Initially the project explored links between values, rights and responsibilities as the UK’s Human Rights Act was being introduced in October 2000. One outcome was the formal launch in 2003 of the Impetus Awards programme which ran from 2002 to 2008 and enabled schools and youth groups across the UK to encourage young people to share ethical values, human rights and responsibilities in their local communities. This work produced some excellent practice by young people which was showcased across the UK with individual country events and six annual celebrations in London. The Impetus Awards programme received support funding from the Ministry of Justice, the Welsh Assembly Government, the Gordon Cook Foundation and the Comino Foundation.

Between 2002 and 2004, the focus of the Personal Responsibility project turned to Responsibility and the Media. This issue arose from a consultation in May 2002 on Parenting and Responsibility that IGE UK had convened with the support of the Comino Foundation. This consultation involved the National Family and Parenting Institute and discussions highlighted the lack of responsible reporting in the media. IGE UK subsequently convened several events in London with contributions from numerous media organisations which were concerned with the responsibility of the media in a democratic society, plus a further series of consultations at St George’s House which resulted in the relaunch of the PressWise Trust as MediaWise. This media ethics charity operates on the principle that press freedom is a responsibility exercised by journalists on behalf of the public who should be informed when the media publish inaccurate information. A further media outcome, again supported by the Foundation, was the consolidation of the European Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma in the UK.

Towards the end of 2004, with support from the Comino and Gordon Cook Foundations, IGE UK convened three consultations on ‘Responsibility and Civic Leaders’ which brought together the past and present Mayors from thirty-two London Boroughs. These consultations explored the role of the Civic Mayor and the potential for civic leaders to promote a culture of increased responsibility in their local communities. The report of these consultations was published in conjunction with the London Mayors Association which, as a result of the consultation series, introduced annual induction training for incoming Civic Mayors in London. The report was also featured at a number of Local Government Association conferences.

In March 2007 IGE UK convened a consultation, with continued support from the two Foundations, to look at the impact of a prison education programme called ‘Ethics and Choices’ that IGE had introduced into the North Carolina Penal Service in the late 1990s. The consultation brought together representatives of the Scottish and English prison services and resulted in a number of recommendations which included piloting Ethics and Choices seminars in Scotland and England to build a broader understanding of the potential for the programme in the UK. Three pilot seminars took place in 2008 for staff at HMP Ford in West Sussex, at the RSA and at the Scottish Prison Service College (SPSC) in Polmont, with two further seminars in 2009 and 2010 being evaluated by the Centre for Mental Health, London. These findings were subsequently published in the ‘Public Health’ journal, with a related article, both recommending that the approach addressed a gap in training (for all disciplines) and indeed in current working practice. Reflecting on decision-making was seen as crucial to ethical practice in such a challenging setting.

In 2008 IGE UK and the Comino Centres collaborated to explore values and promote personal responsibility in the contexts in which the Comino Centres were working. For the Liverpool Comino Centre this meant work with staff from Local Solutions, a social enterprise organisation in Merseyside, and with staff from Home-ground, a residence for young homeless people; this partnership continues. For the Sheffield Centre it meant work on the ethics of science education; work was developed with members of the Primary Science Editorial Board, which resulted in articles focused on Science and Ethics in schools. With support from the Wigan Centre, teachers engaged in Classrooms in Companies project explored the themes of values and personal responsibility in the teaching of controversial issues linked to citizenship.

As a continuation of the Personal Responsibilities project, the Comino and Gordon Cook Foundations funded IGE UK in 2009 to convene two consultations to consider ways of counteracting the negative image so often used by the media when featuring young people. The first consultation brought together young people from across the UK, youth organisations and youth-led policy think tanks, together with journalists and media organisations. Participants agreed that this constant negative portrayal within some media was itself having a negative effect on the confidence, attitudes and behaviour of young people and proposed the establishment of a Youth Media Charter and a Youth Press Complaints Gateway. The second consultation created a shared dialogue between the media and young people and explored how the negative portrayal of young people could be challenged. The direct outcome of this consultation was the formation of the vibrant, and on-going, Youth Media Network.

Also in 2009, that year’s class of Graduates of the Harvard Business School created a movement known as the MBA Oath. Their objective was to address some of the causes of that year’s economic crisis by creating a community of MBAs who would adopt a high standard for ethical and professional behaviour in management. By 2011 the Oath had been embraced by over 4,750 MBAs from 300 institutions throughout the world. Funded by the Comino and Gordon Cook Foundations, and in collaboration with the Institute of Business Ethics and the Strathclyde Business School which was leading the deployment of the MBA Oath in the UK, in December 2010 IGE UK convened a consultation to explore how the range of courses in UK business schools might be modified to provide new business leaders with the tools to become strong ethical leaders in the future. This consultation identified six major issues needing to be addressed in raising the profile of ethics in UK business schools. These issues were further explored at a follow-up consultation in June 2011 which resulted in a series of specific recommendations for subsequent implementation.

The personal responsibility programme was seen to be largely complete by the end of 2010. Although the Foundation can only claim some of the credit, there is now much more political emphasis on personal responsibility than existed when the project began in 1988.

Windsor youth consultation
Youth Media consultation, St George’s House, Windsor Castle 2010