Sep 20, 2023 3 min read

The Most Important Ethical Skill of All - Listening

There is one ethical skill that stands head and shoulders above all others, and it is listening. That’s because it helps you understand just how well you’re performing, against how well you think you are performing. So what options do you have for listening to what your staff think about ethics?


I’ve worked with a number of firms that once they started listening to their staff’s views on how ethical issues were handled at the firm, learnt some pretty hard and fundamental truths. I recall one workshop that revealed events that had the HR managers’ eyes out on stalks. And some training I was asked to sit in on raised questions that steered the firm’s programme in a radical new direction.

Some people think that listening to what staff have to say on ethics will just end up with them hearing things they already knew. This is down to the often prevalent attitude of ‘we are good people so we know there are no real problems’.

Beware: there can often be a warning sign in that gap between how well you’re performing and how well you think you’re performing. The two can be quite far apart. Insurance may be full of good people, but it also has a history of making some poor decisions.

Other people think that listening to what your staff have to say about ethics at your firm could be too daunting an experience. I’ve seen firms stand back from doing so because of a fear that it will just stir up a hornets’ nest. All I ask in response is whether they want to deal with that hornets’ nest proactively in advance, or reactively in the glare of publicity. If it’s there, deal with it, before someone else picks it up and runs with it.

So how do you go about listening to what your staff have to say about your firm’s performance on ethical issues? Here are nine such ways…

Standalone Ethics Surveys

Properly designed and conducted, these can  reveal a detailed picture of where your firm’s performance on ethics currently stands. They’re best conducted every two to three years to allow for improvements programmes to have visible results.

Part Ethics Surveys

Incorporating a few ethical questions into a wider staff survey is cheaper and more convenient, and helps reduce questionnaire overload. It also positions ethics as just another facet of how the business works.

Ethical Pulse Surveys

Designed for taking the ethical pulse of the firm’s people on a particular ethical issue at a particular point in time. Useful if questions have been raised about how well the firm is performing on something. Good at focussing attention onto a particular concern, and easier and quicker to conduct than full blown surveys.

Focus Groups

Capable of opening up and exploring into an ethical issue as the discussion about it progresses. More expensive, but also more revealing, thereby providing the firm with more concrete results to address.


Like focus groups, these need careful facilitation, but can really open up an ethical issue and allow it to be explored in detail. Potentially powerful, for they can allow staff to direct the discussion, while with focus groups, it is the facilitator who is in control.


These create annual one-to one conversations within a controlled process. Taking place across a firm, the feedback can be comprehensive, and also revealing (if properly conducted), for they look at ethical performance at the person-to-person level.

Ethics Training

Ethics training often starts with some form of benchmarking exercise, to establish where people currently stand, and to gauge how well the training achieves its learning objectives. That benchmarking exercise often has a story to tell.

Exit Interviews

These can be revealing occasions, with the person leaving the firm often feeling empowered to be more open and honest in their appraisal of where the firm stands on particular ethical issues. That said, such findings can sometimes be swayed by bad feelings on both sides, so should be handled with care.

Whistleblowing and Complaints

Such data can be highly revealing, coming as it often does from people within a firm who care about an issue (and often the firm as well) enough to raise a serious concern. The way in which the data adds up also has a story to tell about how open or closed an ethical culture the firm has.

There are therefore a good many options for an insurance firm to choose from when considering how best to listen to what their staff think about ethics at work. It is not a case of ‘survey or nothing’.

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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