Integrity at Work Week 2020

The annual Integrity at Work (IAW) Conference is the only national event dedicated to exploring how employers across all sectors can foster a culture of integrity within Irish workplaces. Due to Covid-19 restrictions in 2020, the conference was transformed into a week-long series of online events entitled Integrity at Work Week. We were joined by 28 speakers from Ireland and overseas to explore a range of themes relating to ‘Ethics in the Workplace: New Challenges and Opportunities for Employers’. This article summarises some of the key themes and discussion points that emerged during the sessions.

A Time to Reset

Throughout Integrity at Work Week, speakers discussed the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on our workplaces and on society. It was recognised that while the pandemic has highlighted the vital role played by frontline workers across the health, food, retail and care sectors, it has equally underlined the poor working conditions often experienced by these workers. Those who have been most impacted by Covid-19 are frequently those who are already in a financially, physically or legally vulnerable position, as described in the Irish Times articles about migrant meat factory workers written by Sorcha Pollak, one of our panellists during the week.

Keynote speaker Margaret Heffernan spoke about the dangers of allowing efficiency to be the principal driver of business decision-making, pointing to how supplies of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) had been cut to the bone in health services and pandemic expert panels in the UK and the US had been disbanded despite early warning signals of the Covid-19 emergency. As she put it, efficiency works in highly predictable environments but not in less predictable contexts. The pandemic had demonstrated that we have to imagine the unimaginable and invest in preparedness.

While many positive examples of great community spirit have emerged during 2020, Leo Martin from GoodCorporation shared some of the findings from their UK survey which showed that over 30% of employees have been working excessive hours during the last four months and burn-out and exhaustion are widespread as people try to work remotely whilst providing care for children and older relatives. The survey also highlighted that 28% of public sector workers have been asked to work while furloughed.

While in many ways, moving work online has brought a greater democratisation of access to meetings and events, it also has significant implications for managers in identifying staff who may be vulnerable or struggling with the effects of living with the pandemic. Professor Muel Kaptein discussed the risks of remote working potentially leading to less transparency and less opportunity to role-model good behaviours. He spoke about the importance of ‘discussabilty’ and trust, sharing the interesting finding that organisations with very lengthy Codes of Ethics generally tend to have less trust in their staff. While we often hear about the importance of ‘tone at the top’, Professor Kaptein suggested that the ‘tone at the middle’ is equally important as those in middle management often have significant authority and can help influence the culture of an organisation.

Mark Chambers from the Institute of Business Ethics noted that companies with a clear sense of their social purpose have done better during this crisis. Professor Linda Hogan, from Trinity College Dublin, remarked that the pandemic has demonstrated the importance of ethical leadership and the  value of good communications, empathy and resilience. Despite the many challenges ahead, several  speakers proposed that the pandemic presents organisations with a unique moment in time to re-appraise their purpose and values, taking account of all stakeholders and recognising that the way we work has been, and will continue to be, completely transformed.

Encouraging Diversity and Integrity

The many benefits of encouraging diversity were explored by several speakers throughout Integrity at Work Week. Professor Linda Hogan shared some recent research on the success of female leaders in dealing with Covid-19 which points to the fact that countries led by women are generally reflective of more equitable societies. More equity allows for richer solutions to problems and ultimately more successful outcomes. Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Ireland, Ed Sibley, stated that fostering diversity of gender, background, ability, and thought are all crucial factors in discouraging ‘groupthink’. He recognised, however, that significant work must go into developing talent pipelines that ensure diversity.

Hiring people that are willing to challenge the status quo and ensuring that they can raise concerns without fear of retaliation is key to ensuring a healthy and ethical workplace. Professor Kyle Welch described his analysis of a database of two million internal whistleblowing reports submitted to over one thousand publicly traded U.S. firms which found that the higher the internal report volume the fewer associated government fines and material lawsuits.

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris similarly described a healthy organisation as one that proactively looks for problems; identifies workers who may be vulnerable to participating in corrupt or unethical practices; and seeks to address and resolve issues promptly. Mary Inman, Partner at Constantine Canon and Tom Mueller, author of ‘Crisis of Conscience, Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud’, described whistleblowers as ‘forward indicators of risk’ that should be welcomed and rewarded for having the courage to highlight issues of concern.

Gerald Chifamba from EQS group noted that when establishing speak-up systems, successful organisations go beyond the law and think deeply about what they want to hear and how best to enable people to raise concerns. They also consider external stakeholders, for example in their supply chains who may have really important information to share.

Walking the Ethical Talk

It was widely recognised that there is often a disjoint between talking about creating an ethical workplace and making it happen. So, what are some of the practical ways that leaders can create more ethical working environments?

Several speakers suggested that demonstrating organisational values and ethical standards should be measured in performance management systems. However, HR leader and practitioner Rosarii Mannion cautioned against purely relying on annual appraisal systems and urged that managers need to regularly check in with staff and monitor issues in real time. To attract and retain the best employees, they must feel that there is psychological safety and that their voices are heard. This requires robust early warning systems and a prompt and effective response. Sharing data – where possible – on cases that have been resolved is also an important way of building trust. Rosarii concluded that ‘silence is not golden’ and underlined the importance of having unfiltered information available at board level within organisations.

Tracy Boylin, a former NHS Director of HR and founder of Organisational Genetics, shared the alarming statistic that the annual cost of bullying in the NHS amounts to £2.3 billion per annum. The NHS has launched a National Guardian’s office which coordinates a network of Freedom to Speak Up guardians in NHS Trusts throughout the UK. This has certainly increased the number of reports being made, but Margaret Heffernan cautioned that such guardians or ‘speak-up champions’ must have the backing and ear of the Chief Executive in order to be effective.

Several speakers touched on the difference between legal versus ethical duties. Rules and regulations are important, but just because something is legal doesn’t necessarily mean that it is ethical.  Keynote speaker Dr Scott Allen faced such a dilemma when taking the decision to make a protected disclosure regarding the harms of family detention in the U.S. immigration system. Dr Scott stressed the importance of getting legal advice before reporting wrongdoing and spoke about the reassurance he gained from receiving public endorsement of his actions from professional medical bodies and associations.

Both Dr Allen and Margaret Heffernan referred to the risks inherent in large, highly bureaucratic organisations where obedience and loyalty are highly valued and diffusion of responsibility allows people to avoid taking personal ownership of issues and problems. There is no doubt that changing norms and challenging long accepted ways of working in these contexts is going to require a whole new level of bravery and commitment from leaders. A practical way forward would be to create a multi-disciplinary ethics team with representatives from all levels within the organisation to plan and embed ethical values into the daily work practices.