Mar 22, 2016 3 min read

Listening: the most ethical activity of all?

Listening is perhaps the most ethical activity of all. It’s the best way to learn things, about what people do and why. And learning is fundamental to our development, both as individuals and firms. To develop your ethical capabilities, you should start by learning to listen.

A short story first. One of the seminal moments in my insurance career came when I was head of insurance for Europe’s biggest motor fleet. I was in a meeting with the insurer, looking at the results of a survey into the priorities of the 400,000 customers that made up this fleet. It was eye opening, transformative stuff. The customer service dimension to the fleet’s massive insurance contract had been premised (before I was appointed) upon a measure that its customers were ranking at only 22nd. Their top two priorities had never been measured by this insurer, nor to our knowledge, by any other insurer at that time. And when we thought about it, those two priorities just seemed so obvious. How did we miss them? If only we’d listened earlier!

And then there was the time when in a meeting with a client, the firm presenting the results of a customer survey was attacked by the client for not disclosing information about a participant that had given particularly distinctive feedback. The client felt they had to know, but in reality, they were putting ‘action’ ahead of ‘listening’, especially to the caveat under which the participant had disclosed the information in the first place.

Saving time and money

So when I think of surveys, it’s listening that comes to mind, and from it, learning something about the people involved. I admit that some people think of surveys more in terms of paperwork and cost, and to be done well, there’s certainly groundwork to be covered and money spent. But then I think of all the time and money spent on delivering that customer service measure that the customers didn’t actually put any value on.

In suggesting that your firm looks at holding an internal ethics survey, I’m in effect suggesting putting some time and money into listening and learning something about your most vital asset: the people who work at your firm. And in suggesting the survey be exclusively about ethics and trust, I’m in effect suggesting you expose yourself to feedback about some pretty personal attributes: what your firm actually believes in and how it organises its work to achieve that.

I don’t use the term ‘expose’ lightly. I’ve certainly seen firms learn some pretty fundamental truths about themselves through an ethics survey. And that can be both a daunting and therapeutic process. But then, perhaps not as daunting as sorting out the mess that unethical practices will eventually leave behind.

Have a clear objective

An ethics survey, like any other, needs to be undertaken with an objective in mind. This could be to measure awareness, to explore opinions, to uncover experiences, to gauge sensitivity, or a combination of these. And there needs to be a clear plan for how the outputs from an ethics survey will then be fed through into actionable steps to move the business forward in some way. Finally, there needs to be a decision taken early on about how the results of the ethics survey are going to be fed back to employees: if you want them to be open with you, they might want you to be open with them.

Now, some of you might be thinking ‘good idea, but not just now’. Consider this then: this year will see your firm’s whistleblowers champion prepare the first board report on speaking up activity within your firm. The public may not get to see it, but the FCA could well ask for a copy. They will be asking questions such as ‘what is this firm learning from this’ and ‘has this board been presented with a balanced assessment?’ The data they see in the report will then be compared with benchmarking data they have for whistleblowing. It really is a report that’s got to be right first time and an ethics survey will be a big help in achieving that. The feedback it would give to the whistleblowing champion will be crucial to making the right judgements and drawing the right conclusions.

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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