Needed, culture of ethics

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Societal pressure forces us to exhibit success by society’s standards. It’s time we shun corrupt practices and realise that ethical principles lead to responsible business

I have often wondered why there exists a compulsive need in our society to display oneself and one’s family as always being on top of the world. Why is it necessary to make known, howsoever subtly that one has achieved more than one’s peers? Why is there a societal need to conceal failures — lost jobs, broken marriages, wayward children, financial difficulties, and career and post-retirement frustrations? Why is there a societal obligation and an internal pressure to conform, to compare, to judge and to comment on the performance of others, while suppressing what is murky in one’s own world?

Increasingly the world is looking for ways of admitting the truth, be it in viewing relationships at the level of the individual or the relationship of large multinationals with their clients. That being so, there is a need to think differently about so-called successes and achievements and to take a look at how efforts are being made elsewhere to face the truth and build a climate of trust.

Recently I was asked by a French television company that had been conducting thousands of interviews around the world to participate in an impromptu interview. First I saw the preview. It could be a farmer in Cambodia, a scarfed Sudanese student, a French grandfather or a Swiss fisherman. All the interviews were recorded straight into the camera and the questions were extremely basic but actually seeking answers to what people across the world were asking to be told. Because no one had ever asked these questions of me and because I was certain none of my friends and acquaintances would ever see the photo exhibition, I found myself opening up to a complete stranger and the camera.

The questions went like this: What is your earliest memory? What does family mean to you? Which was the happiest day in your life? Which was the saddest day in your life? What is the meaning of love for you? Did you feel inferior to your husband when you were working? Did you feel superior? Is there someone you have never forgiven in life? Do you feel that your life has been happier than your parents’?

The idea of such video-based interviews was to capture what people actually thought and how they responded when asked personal questions when the mask was down. Unexpectedly I found myself answering what I would never have admitted, face to face. Because all of us are conditioned to fall into stereo-types and wear a mask of contentedness before the outside world; because there is societal pressure to exhibit success by society’s standards of success. And because I knew I was not being judged by viewers across the globe, and there was little likelihood that anyone in India would ever see my responses, I spoke from the heart and truthfully.

And soon thereafter another unrelated but relevant experience came my way. I was a part of a conference on Re-Introducing Integrity and Trust in Business held at the Asian Plateau at Panchgani. Again I heard a constant plea to shun the mask that businesses don in the quest for winning the battle to lose the war. The managing director of Siemens, Mr Armin Bruck and Mr JJ Irani from the House of Tata shared the dilemmas that had beset their companies and laid bare examples of how success pegged to unethical practices was ultimately a disgrace to the company and no success at all. Attended by participants from Japan and a few other countries the underlying theme stressed the need to stop judging success by man-made standards and instead nurture more trustful relationships. Because in the ultimate analysis ethical principles lead to responsible business — companies that respect not just shareholders but a wider world of stakeholders. In the long run, adherence to principles was shown to have earned respect and better business.

The conference highlighted how in 75 countries covering over 2,50,000 employees, the strength of ethical culture was being reassessed. ‘Tone at the top’ openness of communication, whether unethical behaviour was addressed quickly and fairly, comfort levels in speaking up had become the new benchmarks to judge the integrity quotient of companies-not cutting corners for quick profit making.

In this it was important to understand what misconduct in business included. Harassment, inappropriate behaviour, fraud, stealing company property, accounting irregularities and business information violations were higher across Asia than overall in the world. On the other hand Asian countries fared better than the rest of the world when it came to aspects like avoiding conflict of interest, following health and safety policies, avoiding alcohol and drug abuse and insider trading. So there were cultural differences in attitudes to conducting business which ultimately stood rooted in individual behaviour.

It is evident that there is now an effort both at the individual and collective level to respect frankness and truth over subterfuge. It will take decades if not centuries for this ethos to percolate into politics. But in everyday life it is possible to salute honesty and integrity when we see it. Only then can these attributes get the nourishment they need to grow and spread.

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