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Business Comment

Good corp, bad corp - the rapid rise of business ethics


Outlook The venue was apt for an evening’s debate on business ethics entitled “Good corp, bad corp”. In the floors above were the UK corporate headquarters for both Google and Vitol, a secretive global commodities trading house which employs possibly more billionaires than any other company in London. “Bad corp, bad corp” could not have been a more fitting phrase.

My fellow panellists were far better suited than me to discuss such things – two were august business ethics academics, the third the emollient “director of corporate responsibility” at the defence giant BAe.

They discussed at great length how an ethical culture had to come from the top, how ethics had, according to some panellists, grown rapidly in importance in business. And, indeed, how the most ethical companies are the most profitable.

But as we lurch from one corporate scandal to the next, surely it’s clear that, while big companies are creating more and more glossy brochures on corporate responsibility, the temptation to cut corners skews behaviour as much as it ever did. From alleged corruption in China by GSK and Rio Tinto to BP’s rig and refinery disasters, to the price fixing, sanctions busting, mis-selling and foolish lending of bonus-fuelled bankers, it seems all that changes is the scale of the wrongdoing.

What was most telling was how both academics admitted the lowly status the subject of ethics held within the MBA courses teaching the next generation of big business leaders. One confessed his pupils were rarely interested in the subject and that it barely merited a mention on the syllabus; the other told of how the great Lord Kalms – founder of Dixons – had bequeathed a large sum to the London Business School for a chair of business ethics at London Business School. Where is that position now? Sadly, quietly dropped.