Are you ethically challenged?

Today more than ever, ethics are on the business agenda. And PAs are in the front line. Philippa Foster Back, Director of the Institute of Business Ethics, talks to editor Penny Cottee about the importance of ethical behaviour, and how senior secretaries can make sure they uphold the company line while still protecting their integrity

By Philippa Foster Back

Q What do we mean when we talk about ethics, in the business context?

A As far as the Institute is concerned, we mean the application of ethical values to business behaviour. It's not what your company does, but how it does it. It's about how your firm interfaces with the various relationships it handles in order to carry out its functions - employees, clients, suppliers, shareholders, the community, and so forth.

Q And ultimately, a business is people, isn't it?

A Absolutely. We're talking about how people behave. The tone should be set from the top, and this will then hopefully be adopted by staff right throughout the organisation. Everyone should be aware of how the company expects them to behave. That's why most companies these days have an over-arching code of ethics to follow. This code gives guidance to employees when they have to handle situations which pose a dilemma between alternative right courses of action, or when faced with pressure to consider right and wrong.

Q So what should employees be thinking about as they carry out our jobs day-to-day?

A Ethical values should be an ongoing concern for all of us. We need to look at how we're relating to people, whether we're living up to the ethical values of the company, treating people with respect, being honest and open in our dealings, and so on. We should bring an ethical approach to all of our business relationships and activities.

Q Why should PAs be particularly concerned about ethics at work?

A As any senior administrator knows, a huge amount of sensitive information can cross their desks in their job, and dealing with it confidentially, and with integrity, is paramount. This also means that PAs may have concerns more often than other staff, who are not privy to such insider knowledge. The PA also sees what goes on in the upper echelons, and may find him or herself questioning activities on a regular basis.

Q What if you are not comfortable with the company's values?

A Sometimes the company culture may be at odds with your own values, and that can be a big dilemma. Talking to your boss and others may help them to understand where you find problems, and some common ground can be reached. But if you are alone in your views, the tension can become too strong, and in such cases, you may have to leave.

Q What if someone asks you do to something you're not comfortable with?

A Firstly, try applying these three tests. Ask yourself:

  • Do I mind if others find out about my doing this?
  • Is what I'm being asked to do fair?
  • What might be the consequences?
These tests will help you in the first instance. If you're still unsure, you need to speak to your boss, or the person who gave you the task. If you're still not satisfied, ask someone else, perhaps an HR director or another trusted person. There should be a method within your organisation whereby you can raise your concerns. There's little point having an in-house policy on ethics pinned to the noticeboard if you can't approach someone with queries when you have them.

But it's not always easy to see the right path, and there may be many possible courses of action. In our training courses, we offer cameos for participants to consider. For example, what should you do if your boss asks you to lie repeatedly within your job about where he is, what he's doing, and what he promises people?

Q What if the organisation doesn't have an ethics policy?

A You know the answer to that one - do something about it! It's best practice to have a policy - if an individual follows the policy, they are protected under the Public Interest Disclosure Act if they really need to blow the whistle.

Start by looking at the Institute's website, where we have guidance on developing codes of conduct. It's also well worth checking out the Public Concern at Work website ( too, as they deal with all aspects of whistleblowing at work. As a minimum, your organisation - however small - needs to recognise there may be times when a member of staff is driven to voice their concerns, and a supportive organisation will give them the tools to do that safely.

Q Is business becoming less or more ethical?

A Many companies have been doing the right thing as a matter of course, but there's always room for improvement. Nowadays, there's nowhere for a firm to hide, so if it does not take ethical values to heart, perhaps it should start doing so!

Q Why are ethics on the business agenda now?

A Ethics has always been an implicit part of business, but since the 1990s the issue has been more in evidence. One of the turning points was a report in 1999 on corporate governance specifically looking at the reporting of risk in a business, by Nigel Turnbull, then executive director of Reed plc. There was a growing focus on the risk of reputation loss, too, when organisations began to understand what damage bad behaviour could do to their business reputation.

Of course, cases like the Enron scandal brought the issue even more to the fore, and sent many businesses scurrying to examine their policies. Although strangely, Enron had an excellent code of business ethics but the Board gave an exemption to the Finance Director to exploit a conflict of interest to his own financial benefit! In the end, ethics is all down to people.

Philippa Foster Back has been Director of the Institute of Business Ethics (IBE) since 2001. The IBE was established in 1986 to encourage high standards of corporate and business behaviour. Its vision is to be the leader in knowledge and practice of corporate business ethics. The IBE offers companies help and advice on business ethics matters, and offers training to help their people to understand and solve business ethics dilemmas within the corporate context. For full details of courses and publications call 020 7798 6040 or visit

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