Dealing with unintended ethical failure (think Clicks)

The furore that has followed the TRESemmé advert posted by Clicks on its website is not the first instance of this kind of ethical failure. In 2018 H&M came under fire for an advert in which a black child is wearing a sweatshirt with the words “coolest monkey in the jungle” on the front. And in 2017 Dove – as TRESemmé, another Unilever brand – published an advert on its Facebook page showing a black woman turning into a white woman after using Dove body wash.

Irrespective of the fact that these ethical breaches were unintentional – they did not intend to cause offence, differing significantly from the blatant racism that typified the Penny Sparrow, Vicki Momberg and Adam Catzavelos cases – there were consequences. Thus apologies followed as well as commitments to future action.

Clicks Group CEO, Vikesh Ramsunder, announced that “the negligent employees have been suspended” and acknowledged “the need to audit all of our 3rd party (and our own) promotional material for any implicit or explicit bias as well as the need for diversity and inclusivity training for all of our head office employees”. H&M’s apology acknowledged that “even if unintentional, passive or casual racism needs to be eradicated wherever it exists”, and the incident led to the appointment of its first-ever global leader for diversity and inclusiveness. Unilever’s response to the latest incident also gave rise to a commitment to set up a diversity and inclusion committee.

In terms of future action, the focus on greater awareness of and commitment to diversity and inclusivity is very positive. Under the banner of transformation, Dr Claudelle von Eck and Vuyani Ngalwana provide good insight into what this entails in their Daily Maverick article, “Clicks shows transformation is more than just a numbers game”. So too (perhaps ironically) does Mita Mallick, Head of Diversity and Inclusion and Cross-Cultural Marketing at Unilever, provide valuable guidance as regards the key issues pertinent to the role of a Chief Diversity Officer in her September 2020 Harvard Business Review article, “Do You Know Why Your Company Needs a Chief Diversity Officer?”.

The core question is whether this is sufficient to minimise the risk of future ethical breaches, whether they arise from racism, other forms of discrimination, unconscious bias or other unintended sources (such a public statements by leaders or inappropriate responses to ethical issues).

Taking action on how best to recover from an ethical failure would be a relevant response. However this is, by definition, reactive and thus does not provide the safeguard that a proactive response should provide.

A sound, proactive response is well illustrated by a standard retort to such ethical failures: ‘What were they thinking?’. A response that should underpin all else (including diversity initiatives) is based on the quality of ethical thinking and ethical reasoning in the organisation. That these foundational elements of ethics are rarely recognised in organisations belies the value they can (and should) add to the organisation’s ethical status.

This approach rests on the intentional pursuit of thinking that is informed by ethical theory and key ethical concepts. Ethical thinking refers to a widespread and pervasive approach that encompasses and influences how the organisation is run, how it creates value over time, how it treats its stakeholders, and how well it fulfils its responsibilities as a good corporate citizen.

This approach also centres on decision-making. When a decision has ethical implications – as in the Clicks example – the actions and consequences that follow will be enhanced or tainted by the quality of the decision. And, crucially, the ethical quality of the decision will be directly shaped by the quality of the ethical reasoning that was applied. This is especially pertinent relative to the organisation’s board and leadership who, by virtue of their position, are generally primary decision makers.

Ethical thinking and ethical reasoning therefore require both ethical consciousness and ethical competence. When combined with a commitment to doing what is right, this approach delivers noteworthy benefits:
  • The insight to identify the key ethical questions in a given situation
  • Clarity as regards sound ethical arguments
  • Conscious consideration and respect for affected parties and their rights and dignity
  • Recognition of the ethical dimensions of the organisation’s operation and impact
  • Awareness of ethical challenges and sensitivities in the company’s operating environment (be that national or international)
  • Ethically informed decision-making.

The key ethical question that these current ethical failures, as others, should give rise to is whether the company’s board and its leaders are sufficiently well versed as regards ethics. If not, what is being done to address that gap? Do the board and executives have regular ethics interventions to enhance their knowledge? Is the company considering adding new members with the necessary in-depth ethics knowledge and understanding to its board or Social and Ethics Committee? Another solution is to source such expertise externally. As organisations rely on professional advice in the spheres of banking, tax or auditing, so can they draw on ethics professionals to bring independent, quality ethical thinking into the organisation.

by Cynthia Schoeman

© Ethics Monitoring & Management Services (Pty) Ltd, 2020