As the Coronavirus pandemic hit the UK, the government sought to provide assistance across a number of fields, including financial support for businesses.

There has been much discussion about whether what the government has put in place is appropriate, suits all businesses, is timely or is enough. What has struck me the most over the last couple of weeks as I have considered what to write about in this blog is people’s reactions to the government support package in terms of their idea of what is “right”.  

Business Ethics is a broad subject, going beyond what is legal, to what is right. Going beyond “what are my rights” to “what are my responsibilities”. With that in mind, let me summarise a few points of view that have graced my social media feed and discussions with friends and clients, below. As NIBE seeks to challenge businesses, I’m afraid I’m not offering any answers, just questions!

“We haven’t applied for the £10,000 grant because we don’t need it, the lockdown hasn’t affected our revenue” – this is a great position to be in! Bit, what does the future hold? As a responsible business should shareholders/trustees/directors not act in the best interest of their organisation b applying for the grant anyway, as we don’t know what the future holds? Or should ethical considerations around immediate need take priority? Remembering that this is taxpayers’ money, ultimately.

“I don’t want to furlough myself as I don’t ever want to claim benefits” – this from a sole director/limited company. The government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme is not a benefit, but even if it was, is this the right stance to take? Is it unethical to be in receipt of benefits, is the value that is being held onto a responsible or ethical value to hold in the first place? As a business owner, with statutory duties towards the company itself, is it right to take this stance?

“Why don’t millionaires just keep paying their staff the full wage, they have plenty of money?” – I’m sure we’ve seen headlines like this regarding Philip Green and Richard Branson’s companies. Such questions are, I believe, about envy. We envy those in a seemingly better financial or social position. Thinking from a business perspective, we need to separate out the person from the business – they are usually legally separate entities anyway.  Why should “rich” people have less access to government support, wouldn’t it be unfair, unethical, to penalise someone (or a business) for their previous success? Finally, just because an organisation has a lot of cash, or assets, doesn’t mean that cash will last very long, or that it can be quickly mobilised to aid cashflow.

Why are footballers being kept on full salaries whilst club employees are furloughed?” – a fair question, although I suspect the answer is obvious – supply and demand. There are a limited number of top tier footballers, but many people who could be employed at a club for operational tasks. But, there is a question of fairness, of parity. Football is, after all, a team game. Given the poor profitability in professional sports, wouldn’t the responsible and ethical choice be to furlough everyone?

I accept I’ve probably conflated some terms here: ethical, right, responsible. Ethical considerations in business are wide ranging, but for most businesses and business owners (and other organisations and their directors/trustees) these are the questions that will be asked when people are making their decisions. We should ask ourselves if the decisions we make are ethical (what are our values, and are they being applied to this decision), right (for us, for our people, for our clients, for our country) and responsible (is this the best use of our time, money and people; does the action support our goals and objectives)?

It is a challenging time for organisations, but there are also opportunities to be grasped. One opportunity is to use this time to identify organisational values, read and write codes of ethics and implement them in decision-making.

Richard Talbot-Jones is Managing Director of Talbot Jones Ltd and a Director of NIBE.