The public is becoming more distrustful of institutions. So businesses need to examine their values, not merely to present the acceptable face of capitalism, but to compete in a world where one false move can spell disaster.
Perhaps it is the change of government, maybe it is the Nolan Committee's report, or it could even be a cyclical thing. Anyway, ethics - at least as a subject - is back in fashion in business circles.

As reported in yesterday's Finance section, the incoming chief executive of the Securities Institute has set out his stall by commissioning research on perceptions of the City's standing in this regard. Last week, the Institute of Directors hosted a seminar on values and purpose in business, while the previous week the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce continued its project examining ethics in the workplace with a presentation on the case for whistleblowing.

At that event, Guy Dehn, director of Public Concern at Work, pointed out that recent surveys indicated widespread support for legislation promoting a concept that has traditionally been criticised for being a threat to trust and confidence.

Pointing out that a sound, balanced approach to whistleblowing will actually strengthen such attributes as well as demonstrating the accountability of the institution concerned, he said: "My premise is that for too long there has been a popular belief that the employee's duty of confidentiality is akin to the Mafia's code of honour. Business and public bodies do themselves no favours while they impose absolute silence on their people. On the contrary, they will only strengthen the hand of those who seek to portray such organisations as some conspiracy against the public good."

The same applies to ethics and values in general. Consumers are too sophisticated these days to accept that a bit of community activity on the part of a company cancels out any doubts they might otherwise have about it. Just as marketing folk are discovering that a company cannot successfully promote itself in a certain way if the brand lacks "integrity", so organisations are realising that their values must be more than skin-deep.

John Drummond, proprietor of Integrity Works, a consultancy that has helped many organisations establish codes of ethics and deal with ethical problems, believes that organisations must devote serious resources to it.

Many of the most successful companies have realised this for years. Indeed, the fact that consumers have felt comfortable about dealing with them all that time might in part account for their success. Mr Drummond points out, for instance, that he has observed how helpful employees of Hewlett- Packard, the US computer and electronics company, find the set of values enshrined in "The HP Way" when dealing with ethical dilemmas.

Equally, executives of the company said recently that the document - which, although modified from time to time, has been in place since the company was established more than half a century ago - had been of great assistance in supporting a new drive to encourage diversity and combat harassment in the workplace.

Business has enjoyed brief flirtations with the concept of ethics before. This time there seems to be a greater realisation that it is not just some fancy add-on that can be indulged when the going is good. Rather, it is - as Mr Drummond stresses - a fundamental element in business success.

It is generally recognised that satisfied customers come from having loyal and committed employees, but less widely acknowledged that these employees acquire such attributes less through financial incentives (though they help, of course) than through feeling comfortable that their employer shares their values and beliefs.

It is surely no accident that at Hewlett-Packard and other principled companies long-service awards are showered about like confetti. Even the most cynical of employees would find it hard to spend a lifetime with a company of which he or she disapproved.