A virtue approach to business ethics training responds to the zeitgeist

  • The general public has lost trust in business leaders because of perceptions they have condoned a lower standard of behaviour in business.
  • The personal virtues of self-awareness, honesty, empathy, fairness, trustworthiness and dependability also apply to an organisation.
  • This article outlines the five steps to rebuild virtues into organisational systems and workplace relationships.


Public opinion polls show that the general public has lost trust in business leaders because of perceptions they have overseen a different, and significantly lower set of behaviour standards in business, than from the rest of society. At the same time, the millennium generation is also rejecting a business paradigm that appears to profit at the expense of community. Instead, they are choosing to join startups and business organisations with new success formulas that purposely seeks to enhance the societal well being.

External stakeholder demands for a more virtuous approach to business and its social purpose resonates with virtue ethics and suggests that virtues-based business ethics training responds to the zeitgeist. Adopted this approach, will help business leaders rebuild societal trust and attractiveness as an employer to millenniums.

Work is core to how we live and contributes to a productive society. It depends on virtues similar to those identified with our well-being in the personal sphere and depends on virtues similar to those identified with our well-being in the personal sphere. The rationalisation that business operates by a different set of rules has led to the downfall and reputation loss of many leaders.

Some of these virtues agreed to be essential for personal life include self-awareness, honesty, empathy, fairness, trustworthiness and dependability. These are the very same virtues necessary for an organisation’s to retain employee, customer and societal trust and, increasingly, brand loyalty.

Honesty, for example, is a core virtue enabling positive relationships between individuals and between organisations and their customers. Being an effective leader relies on the virtues of trust, accountability and integrity; being an effective team member on the virtues of cooperation and dependability and, a motivating manager, on virtues of fairness and empathy.

Instead of rationalisations for poor behaviour such as the ubiquitous myth that ethics and business is an oxymoron, or ethical business doesn't pay, leaders need to speak up, speak loud and speak often about the essential virtues that underpin long-term business success. Everyone wants to belong to organisations that care and listen; we build our sense of self- esteem and pride from doing quality work. Recognising the desire for virtues to be rewarded at work and embedding them in ‘the how’ of getting it done enables organisational growth and restores trust between business and society. Because within their communities, employees are the most influential ambassadors for the virtues of their employers.

Aristotle’s virtue ethics offers an engaging and compelling route to rebuilding employee self-esteem and trust after the scandals exposed by Australia’s recent royal commissions. Social psychology research shows us that much of the unethical behaviour presented at the royal commission was as much due to the unconscious behaviour and the rationalisations employees used, as organisational pressures to perform. For those seeking to build more ethical business cultures, they must, therefore, work through both individuals and organisational systems.

Virtue ethics asks each of us to think about how we want to be, what we want to stand for, and what we would like to strive for as business professionals at every stage of our careers. In so doing, it leverages of our identities as ethical people and enables shared responsibility for organisational conduct risk to emerge. It responds to people’s innate need to believe not only that it’s right, but that it’s right for them, and enlists their commitment in building and safeguarding ethical standards in their organisational sphere of influence.

Virtuous conduct involves ‘finding a way’ to balance what might seem as competing interests, for example:

  • shareholder vs customer interests
  • being responsible with company assets but also a risk-taker
  • being respectful of others but also getting desired results or balancing short and long-term goals.

We are not born virtuous, but we can hone our virtues by reflection and our choice of behaviours. Virtue ethics is not, therefore, an intellectual exercise. It is about demonstrating through our actions virtues such as honesty and fairness to enable positive impacts on others and ultimately, human flourishing. Both virtues and vices are the output of habit and tradition. Any industry that practices the vice of dishonesty enables that vice to flourish. In the same way, by creating cultures where fairness and respect are promoted and rewarded, leaders enable organisational members to develop the capacity to become more virtuous in decision-making and actions.

Leading brands such as Unilever, 3M, Ikea, Aldi, Patagonia, Google, Marks & Spencers, Avon or Starbucks show us how ensuring consistent behaviour standards build thriving cultures that accelerate business success. They start from a recognition that the leader's role is to create an organisational context where employees can be the best they can. To enable this, they seek to eliminate the silos and manage the egos that undermine collective accountability and spawn toxic workplace cultures. No matter which country they are in, behaviour standards are the same enabling a consistent culture to emerge.

There’s also a strong business case for embracing virtue ethics as research shows a direct relationship between ethical behaviour, employee well-being and long-term business success.

Building trust is unquestionably a key priority for today’s business leaders, and it depends on everyone playing a role to this end. Edgar Schien, the academic guru on corporate culture, suggests that instead of focusing on trying to change culture, leaders should focus on the challenge of rebuilding trust and how the current culture is impacting that challenge.

As people can only move to a future they can imagine, Schien cautions, all participants must become clear and specific about the types of behaviour impacting on trust and develop a shared awareness of the desired new behaviour standards. Building culture, he says, involves shared learning and shared experiences involving all organisational members. Embarking on an organisational journey to hone and embed virtue ethical decision making can provide such a shared experience and act as an accelerator for building trust at every level. It provides a new and shared language in which a renewed culture based on behaviour change can emerge. These new behaviours, according to Schein, emerge not because employees were ‘told to’ but because they feel good and ‘they work.’

Enshrining the virtue of fairness in all new initiatives and ensuring front line managers role model the new behaviour is critical since they determine fairness for most employees. People, at work and in their personal lives, are at their best when they feel supported and can trust that their organisations will do and reward what they say they value. Without support and trust, we are reduced to a struggle to survive. Perceptions of overall fairness at work are also strongly correlated with the incidence of misconduct or conduct risk with a perceived lack of fairness, the source of increased unethical behaviour.

Ethical behaviour is vital in all aspects of life because it reflects our character: who we are and what we stand for. Through our work in business we are bringing forth a new world and in so doing find ourselves in a bigger story about societal progress as well as achieving a personal sense of achievement and satisfaction which in turn builds our self- esteem and happiness. Virtuous behaviour matters because how we spend our days at work is how we spend our lives.

Purposely rebuilding virtues into organisational systems and workplace relationships involves five key steps :

  1. Intentionally seeking to reconnect with our human needs to flourish and feel safe at work. Leveraging our humanness results in more inclusive and collaborative cultures.
  2. Measuring the existing trust gap between where you are and your trust goal and identify the virtues that will get you there.
  3. Identify how the existing culture promotes individualism rather than collaboration; this is often the systemic cause of conduct risk.
  4. Engaging leaders in developing personal action plans for how they will build and promote desired virtues and values in their sphere of influence; this embeds values in day-to-day actions.
  5. Ensure organisational culture review progress reports become part of personal performance appraisals; this embeds accountability.

Dr Attracta Lagan can be contacted on 0430 488 875 or by email at attracta@values.com.au.

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