How ethical mentoring can make a difference

26 Jun

It seems that every day, there is another story of organizations, which were once respected, betraying the trust of their stakeholders. The scenes at Fifa (pronounced Thiefa), when staff applauded the boss, who had presided over years of corrupt practice, may have seemed inexplicable, but they demonstrate just how easily immoral and illegal practice can become such a part of the culture that people rationalise it as normal and acceptable. Our desire to think well of ourselves leads us to create narratives that justify the otherwise indefensible. If someone challenges those narratives, we protect our sense of self-worthiness by positioning them as immoral, for undermining some greater good, to which we have aligned our own immoral actions. So, in the case of Fifa, those who exposed corruption were seen as attacking the “good work” of supporting football in very poor countries.

Our individual and collective inability to challenge the morality of our actions and our inbuilt defensiveness, when someone else challenges them, make the task of shifting a corrupt culture very difficult. Getting everyone to sign a pledge of better behaviour in the future doesn’t have much effect on underlying assumptions – the narrative of justification remains in the background and continues to exert a more subtle influence. Over time, without constant vigilance and ethical role models, unethical behaviour re-asserts itself.

Changing the narrative can only happen through dialogue. Not just any dialogue, but dialogue that promotes both introspection – understanding our own core values and how we try to live them – and an understanding and appreciation of wider and different perspectives. Connecting with our own values reinforces our ability to self-police against unethical behaviour. Connecting with wider perspectives helps us question and break free from unethical assumptions that we have absorbed from the shared narrative of our immediate working environment.

This kind of dialogue doesn’t happen in one-off workshops. It requires a learning context – one where we are open to re-evaluation of our internal and external worlds and how we relate to them. Hence the emerging role of “ethical mentor”. Ethical mentors come equipped with skills to help people have the learning conversations about difficult issues, along with an understanding of the psychology of ethicality – how we make choices in line with our values. They also typically have an immense store of personal wisdom.

The role of ethical mentors is to fourfold. Firstly, they are the first line of defence against the corporate reputation damage of whistleblowing. Genuine whistleblowers typically take their concerns public because they do not feel there are being listened to. An ethical mentor provides an empathetic ear and a resource, through which people can explore a range of options of how to be heard. Typically, the mentor also has a direct link to an organization’s leadership, who would otherwise often be unaware of unethical behaviour further down the organization. The mentor can help a whistleblower think through how best to present their concerns, how to gather evidence, where relevant.

Some organizations, especially in the health and social care sectors, are experiencing a different kind of whistleblower – people, who misuse the whistleblowing structures to deflect attention from their own dishonest or incompetent behaviour, or to take revenge for being found out. By and large, these people avoid the ethical mentor, but doing so greatly reduces their credibility.

The second role of an ethical mentor is to support anyone in the organization, who has an ethical dilemma and needs help in thinking through how to manage it. The process, at its simplest, involves helping them:

  • Articulate the problem
  • Consider the context
  • Consider the implications
  • What other opinions/ perspectives may be relevant?
  • Balance the arguments
  • Make a final check

The third role of an ethical mentor is to help people develop ethical resilience – the ability to recognise ethical dilemmas, become more ethically aware and manage ethical issues in line with their own personal values and the values of their organisation. This tends to be a longer-term learning process than the first two roles.

Fourthly, the mentor acts as a corporate conscience. Their exposure to ethical issues at various levels within the organization and their reflection on these experiences is an invaluable window on the ethical narratives of the organisation. They are able to identify patterns of thinking and behaviour that increase ethical risk and bring these patterns to the attention of the organization’s leadership, so that remedial action can be taken before reputational catastrophe occurs.

There are still only a handful of organizations, which have formal ethical mentors in place – Barclays, Standard Chartered, Diageo and the UK National Health Service among them – and these are still learning how best to develop ethical mentors. If we are to make a significant difference to corporate morality, however, ethical mentors have a major role to play.

© David Clutterbuck, 2015

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