Oct 17, 2013 2 min read

A bit of ethics assessment can go a long way

What do you think is the most common failing when it comes to ethics? (I’d love to hear your suggestions).

I think it’s our capacity to overestimate our own performance on ethical issues, relative to our colleagues. The same goes for how we see our firm – we invariably see it as performing above average on ethics compared to its immediate market. This results in a view that it’s “those people over there” or “other firms in the market” who are causing all the problems.

The quid pro quo of this of course, is a tendency to leave ethics for others to sort out, as “it’s not really our problem”. Inertia sets in, which is then reflected in other knock on effects, such as:

  • a somewhat unresponsive attitude to ethics training;
  • being less able to reflect upon (and then do something about) unethical behaviours around us;
  • having a less critical ‘ethical eye’ for some of the decisions we make (on the basis that we’ve “always done it this way” and “it’s the way the market works”).

It is quite natural to view our own capabilities in the best light and to express them in this way to others. At the same time, we may find it easy to acknowledge that we’re less than perfect, but quite difficult to assess how less than perfect we actually are relative to those around us, or which of our imperfections needs most attention. In areas like ethics, this is because we often lack a clear assessment of our own capabilities and how well we’re applying them.

Assessing someone’s capabilities in a relatively broad subject like ethics can be a challenge. Yet it needn’t be that way, especially if you have a clear picture of the ethical issues your work brings you most into contact with. That clear picture comes from your firm having undertaken an assessment of ethical risks connected with its business and then translated its findings into what it expects from someone in your role. You can almost hear the cogs clicking into place and the wheel of well managed ethics starting to turn.

I have long been an advocate of helping people to understand what they’re good at and what they need to be better at. Empowering people with a bit of self knowledge about their own capabilities is a great motivator for self improvement. That’s why I would like to see everyone in insurance and financial planning able to access a suite of graded self assessment tools on various ethical subjects. These can be as big or as small as the firm, and the ethical risk, involved.

So, if your firm’s ethical risk assessment shows that the manager of such and such department needs a working understanding of anti-bribery and a detailed understanding of conflicts of interest, then to help you get that promotion, you need to know where you currently stand and where you can learn more to achieve the necessary standards. And if a firm’s complaints root cause analysis points towards inadequate attention to conflicts of interest, then an assessment within the relevant department of  their individual grasp of that ethical issue will enable more targeted and supportive remediation to take place.

Some firms may wish to introduce assessments of this or that ethical issue on a compulsory basis. I would hold back from such a step on all but a few positions (such as assessing bribery for an account executive working in certain parts of the world). For your typical UK insurance firm, I would encourage a voluntary approach, allowing employees to guide their own learning, while at the same time understanding what value the firm attachs to such knowledge being acquired. The gain from this approach is a particular skill of considerable long term value: the ability to apply reflective and critical thinking to understand ‘why we are doing what we are doing’.

Duncan Minty
Duncan Minty
Duncan has been researching and writing about ethics in insurance for over 20 years. As a Chartered Insurance Practitioner, he combines market knowledge with a strong and independent radar on ethics.
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