The company where I work has a strong focus on both shaping an ethical work culture and impacting the wider financial industry in ways that encourage broad adoption of ethical practices. These ideas resonate deeply with me so I was glad when one of our senior leaders pointed folks to this article on ethical systems design. Written by Jonathan Haidt (a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business who wrote a very interesting and challenging book called The Righteous Mind that I would highly recommend) and Azish Filabi (CEO of Ethical Systems), the piece offers some valuable insights and encouragements for those seeking to shape a more ethical business culture. I’d recommend reading this brief piece in its entirety, but below I have called out some of the things that most stood out to me.
- There is an ethical crisis in business and simple regulation cannot solve it. (I would argue that this ethical crisis extends to other areas of contemporary society that has rejected traditional ethical moorings which tend toward patriarchy and oppression of ‘the other’ while not yet finding/creating a new ethical framework beyond ‘don’t get caught’; the authors don’t make this argument here but it tracks with their other observations). Companies can and should find ways to ‘nudge’ employees toward ethical behavior and influence regulation in ways that, “reward the development of ethical cultures” even as they focus on creating internal cultures centered on “doing the right thing” not just on making money.
- Some companies are discovering that investing in employees has a positive impact on profitability, as does striving to make the company a “learning organization” where everyone is encouraged to call out ethical issues and to learn from mistakes.
- Business leaders have to be “not only good people but also moral managers [who] bring their personal values to work and demonstrate that fairness, integrity and mutual trust are important.” Promoting and even measuring a company’s ethical culture is crucial for ensuring that real ethics instead of simple compliance is the goal.
The authors affirm that increasing the number of companies focused on ethical systems design will not only “reduce misbehaviour and improve employee retention” but also (in a loftier goal) help entire countries “fight the twin demons of slow growth and rising inequality.” Such aspirations are certainly worth striving for, especially in a nation and a world wracked by inequality, but my own suspicion is that in truth it’s not that simple.