Higher Ground

Alison Taylor’s ‘Higher Ground’ is my book of the year so far.

Like Taylor, I think operating in today’s turbulent and transparent world means that ethical management is increasingly important, and I also agree that culture and support for employee activism, as well as risk managment, sustainability, corprorate branding, etc, need to be holistically aligned around this too. In fact, I’d go slightly further and suggest that internal organisational culture is the first aspect of ethics that organisations need to focus on – if they’re to avoid the sorts of problems Taylor describes through her many examples.

I also like Taylor’s model suggesting that organisations now need to prioritise issues that are important to stakeholders as well as those which influence business success (a bit similar to my own suggestions on multi sided HR).

And I like her suggestions that ethical culture has to extend beyond pure business performance to include a core purpose beyond making money or defeating competitors, ie not one in which:

  • The ends justify the means, and there’s an urge to seek market dominance at any cost
  • Autocratic command and control leaders make employees fearful and reluctant to share concerns – which also provides leaders plausible deniability
  • A lack of individual accountability diffuses personal responsibility at the top.

One area I disagree with Taylor on is that she seems to see a refocused Compliance function – Ethics and Compliance – as being an appropriate home for leading and validating ethical approaches. I’d suggest it needs to move well away from compliance. My suggestion would be a person / group focused on both business performance and ethics – perhaps the Chief of Staff or CEO’s Office – or else this could be cascaded into relevant functions, eg with HR leading on ethical / multi-sided HR?

As I noted above, I agree an integrated approach to ethics is required, but I don’t believe there needs to be an integrated responsibility. Actually, it could be quite useful if all relevant functions needed to work together to co-ordinate all practices within a firm to ensure ethical as well as effective performance.

Also, whilst I also agree with Taylor that employees need to be empowered to take ethical decisions, I don’t believe HR should take on an overarching role for ethical advocacy. HR doesn’t do well when it over emphasises its responsibility for legislative compliance, and it would be just as unhelpful to take a large role focusing on ethics than for business performance.

But HR should definitely be advocating for more attention to ethical practice across the organisation, and applying this to ourselves. Reading ‘Higher Ground’ would be a great place to start.


Jon Ingham

Directir, Strategic HR Academy


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