Principia Advisory

What’s next for ethics in business? Lessons from the last crisis

14th July 2020

Businesses everywhere are facing tough ethical decisions. But when we know who we are and why we exist, even the most intractable dilemmas can rapidly resolve themselves. And when we articulate our purpose and values, and embed them into the way we make decisions, we can place enormous trust in our people to do the right thing.

It is already clear that the COVID-19 pandemic will reenergize the debate on the role of business in society. But it will also present an existential challenge to one of the major currents of the last decade: the growing interest in ethical, purpose-driven business.

The notion of purpose-driven companies has gained seemingly unstoppable traction in recent years. The FT’s series on The Company of the Future: Profit and Purpose marked a mainstreaming of a discussion that just 10 years ago was restricted to left-leaning think tanks and university common rooms. Executives are more comfortable than ever discussing ethical business, and it is now unusual to see a major multinational company without a statement of purpose.

But in the context of what is shaping up to be the most significant economic contraction since the Depression, these nebulous concepts will have to earn their keep. It does not take too fertile an imagination to envision conversations around the boardroom table that argue the time has come to stop this self-indulgent navel gazing and get back to basics.

A flight to safety?

In predicting the impact of this crisis, we are all navigating without a map, but there are parallels to an earlier moment of uncertainty. In 2008, the assumption was that the global financial crash would sound the death knell for corporate social responsibility. In the context of economic constraints, many observers anticipated that a flight to safety would result in curtailment of discretionary investment.

For a decade, I had the privilege to be part of the team leading the United Nations Global Compact-Accenture Strategy CEO Study, the largest global research program on business leaders’ attitudes toward sustainability. Compiling the first edition of the study, immediately after the financial crisis, was an invaluable opportunity to sit down one-to-one with leaders at the forefront of sustainable business as they began to take stock of a fundamentally changed environment.

One thing was clear: Sustainability had not only survived the recession, but it had emerged stronger. The foundations of the social contract between business and society had been shaken, and leaders understood that business needed to rearticulate the case for its license to operate. Thinking purely in terms of shareholder returns was out; broader definitions of value, encompassing a company’s impact on stakeholders and society, were in.

In hindsight, the flourishing of sustainability during this period seems inevitable. But it was only the actions of leaders truly committed to putting environmental, social, and governance issues at the heart of strategy that prevented a return to business as usual. As innovation on the frontline enabled the recession to act as a clearinghouse for sustainability, gone were the eye-catching “pure CSR” initiatives — no one, it turned out, could really explain why a Nordic telco was building wells in Southeast Asia. They were replaced by a smaller, more select group of programs that served the bottom line as well as sustainability. Just 12% of CEOs surveyed in the CEO study in 2010 had seen reduced investment in sustainability as a result of the downturn, while 74% reported that circumstances had led their company to align sustainability more closely with core business.

Translating commitments into action

As the economy recovers from the shock of coronavirus, leaders have an opportunity to translate their commitments to purpose into a transformative force for good. Just as the 2008 financial crisis spurred leaders into action, building on the foundations of their commitments to sustainability to deliver real impact that could rebuild trust in business, so they face another inflection point today where the decisions they make will shape the future not only for their own companies, but also for role of business in society.

With business leaders’ every decision under intense scrutiny, abstract notions of purpose, ethics, and responsibility will be more tangible and highly charged.

In the same way that 2008 provided the impetus for companies to integrate their commitments to sustainability into core business, maintaining trust will now depend on embedding values and principles into the company’s day-to-day activities. The companies that emerge from the crisis with reputations enhanced will increasingly serve as a model for others: by following the lead of Johnson & Johnson, for example, whose decision to publish its ethics-based framework makes transparent how the company’s credo is guiding decision-making on the frontline, leaders can engage the public and demonstrate that talk translates into action. And by acting consistently, in line with the values they espouse, can leaders ensure that ethics follow the path of sustainability in becoming a nonnegotiable element of core business.

Harnessing the power of business in society

As this crisis reveals character, we will quickly discover those companies for which purpose really is at the center of everything they do — and we will even more quickly uncover those whose commitments to ethics, responsibility, and purpose were only ever surface-level.

It is already evident that for some companies, decision-making in the crisis has been straightforward, with leaders consistently making the right calls day-by-day. What these companies have in common is a deep-rooted identity, purpose, and principles against which leaders can test tough judgement calls. When we know who we are and why we exist, even the most intractable dilemmas can rapidly resolve themselves. And when we articulate our purpose and values, and embed them into the way we make decisions, we can place enormous trust in our people to do the right thing.

Business leaders cannot afford to waste this crisis. To ensure that ethical business is not seen as a luxury to be offloaded in troubled times, leaders must make certain that their commitment to ethics and purpose is translated into real action: the decisions they make; the cultures they build; the way they innovate. The decisions that leaders make during this crisis, and into the recovery, will define them and their companies for years to come. Ethics and purpose can no longer be used as a fig leaf for business as usual, but instead must form the foundation of a renewed case for the power of business in society.


Rob Hayward is Chief Operating Officer of Principia, where he also serves as Engagement Director for key clients. Prior to joining Principia, Rob spent a decade at Accenture Strategy, where he began his career in finance, private equity and M&A before leading the development of the firm’s work on ethics and culture, as well as Accenture’s research partnership with the United Nations on responsible business and leadership. Rob holds a degree in Modern History from the University of Oxford, and sits on the board of trustees of Shelter, the UK’s largest housing and homelessness charity.