When we’re questioned about how ethical we are, most of us respond very positively, and that’s great, but it’s not necessarily the same as how ethical are the decisions that we take. The great step in ethical decision making is to move from thinking about ourselves as ethical, to applying those ethical values to the decisions we take at work.
This was illustrated in some research I came across recently, about the ethical orientation of insurance managers in India. The research used Forsyth’s ethical position questionnaire to draw out how 200 managers from across India’s private and public sector insurers (both general and life) would react in a series of morally toned situations. The paper, presented at a business ethics conference in 2010 at Panjab University, is pretty detailed, so I’ll just highlight it’s key points here.
Forsyth’s ethical positions theory views people’s moral judgement and behaviour according to two basic dimensions: idealism and relativism. In summary, idealism has moral judgements being determined by their impact on others, while relativism has moral judgements being determined by the features of the particular situation they’re being evaluating within. An individual would be assessed on both dimensions and the findings used to further explore their decision making habits.
The research’s top finding was that insurance managers in India score extremely high on idealism: in fact, those surveyed scored 100% on idealism. At the same time, the research found that those same managers scored 75% on relativism. What this tells us is that all of these managers saw themselves as ethical, but a significant majority of them struggled to put this into practice.
And there were some interesting variations: managers in public sector insurers scored lower on relativism than their private sector colleagues; managers in general insurance scored much lower on relativism than their life insurance colleagues; and females scored lower on relativism than their male colleagues. Bear in mind however that the sample size makes such breakdowns statistically a bit shaky.
Let’s stick with the bigger picture then. It is that these managers were all good people, but that they were also finding it difficult to apply their ethical values into their business decisions. They were too often having to put those ethical values asides in certain work situations. And remember that these were managerial people, bound to have some degree of both experience and authority.
Might either of those scores for idealism and relativism be somehow unique to Indian insurance people? I doubt it – the precise numbers might fluctuate across regions, but on the whole, I think they reflect a more widespread position.
What might an insurer, in India or anywhere else, take from research like this? I would suggest three things:
- that a great many of your staff are open to being more ethical in how they go about their work;
- that moving from ‘thinking about ethical decision making’ to actually ‘doing it’ can seem like a hard step, with which they will need support;
- that while such support can be delivered through training, the most valuable support of all will come from leadership from the top on ethics. And by this, I mean leadership that helps people make more ethical decisions around the key challenges that those people face at work.