First person: It's time to play fair

People, and therefore society, have an innate sense of fairness. For businesses to regain their trust, they need to start sharing this value
by Anthony Hilton FCSI(Hon)


The annual report of the Banking Standards Board contains a scatter diagram in response to a question about work relationships.

As is the way with such diagrams, those words that are little used are denoted as small; those used more extensively are highlighted as bigger. Thus the reader can gain an impression of what most concerns the sector’s employees.

On this occasion, ‘behaviour’ and ‘treat’ are the two most common, followed by ‘concern’, ‘fair’, ‘bully’ and ‘unfair’. Words like ‘aggressive’, ‘resent’, ‘fear’ and ‘blame’ are also in this mix.

This is just one of the 80 pages and a lot of the report shows that banking is trying to do better. But these negative words and other metrics suggest it needs to try harder. Executives still have a lot of work to do in their organisations. 

Good corporate citizens

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) could be a part of this, though some people think it does not really help. There is a feeling that a business does what it does in one part of its organisation, and then does CSR in another; one part is bad, one part is good. The complaint is that public relations teams talk up the good part for CSR purposes in a futile bid to disguise the bad part. 

Those who really get it, who deliver truly sustainable enterprises, and who really take the employees, customers and suppliers with them, are still a minority. If CSR is going to get traction, then it needs to be at the heart of the business. It is no good doing one noble thing in a sea of mediocrity; the whole organisation has to do what is right. 

This plays to A Blueprint for Better Business, a charity run by Charles Wookey, who wants business to be ‘fair’, as suggested in the banking scatter diagram. He says this is what businesses should do and not, as with CSR, what they should talk about. He has his work cut out though; many executives say life is unfair – and indeed for a lot of people it is. Business can also be unfair, at least part of the time, disadvantaging one set of people over another.

But after seven years of trying, Wookey is gaining traction for his ideas. At the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) in central London early this spring, he organised a debate provocatively entitled ‘How not to run an unfair business’. Joining him on the panel were Justin King, the former chief executive of J Sainsbury and now with private equity group Terra Firma; the philosopher and House of Lords cross-bencher Baroness Onora O’Neill; and Jane Corbett, the Assistant Mayor of Liverpool. The RSA’s CEO, Matthew Taylor, was the chair.

Wookey started by saying that business should be driven by fairness, first to produce wellbeing for its employees and the community, and second to create an ecosystem that is sustainable for enterprise. To do this, business needs to change in two ways. First, it has to get away from the idea that it is solely about profit; second, it has to realise that employees are not actors focused on money, status and power, but instead have a whole range of interests and emotions. 
Fairness might make people in the UK believe in business, rather than simply tolerate itThis requires a significant shift in thinking. Fairness – or unfairness – is at the heart of power in businesses and that often means employees and suppliers are given a rough deal. Management wants to do something, wants to get out of a hole and employees must lump it. 

This is in spite of the fact that business is a human organisation with consumers, employees and suppliers, all of whom are needed to enable the company to prosper.

Wookey is on to something because the starting point is indeed that fairness is deeply ingrained in society. If business is to be trustworthy, then it needs to reflect this. For business to act fairly, it has to focus on three things: how is a decision made, with what frame of mind and with what result?

All of these are important, but the key is the ‘frame of mind’, because that should mean the organisation is trying to be fair, even if it does not always accomplish it. 

Then, even if it is impossible to be as fair as it would like to be, it should be possible not to be manifestly unfair to anyone – hence the seminar’s title of ‘How not to run an unfair business’. Fairness then becomes not a constraint, but an aim. Clarity of purpose, fair processes, treating people with dignity and respect, consulting people and engaging them on what has to be decided, and a welcome scrutiny, are all part of it. 

Fairness is not something most executives think about, but perhaps they should. It might make people in the UK believe in business, rather than simply tolerate it.

This article was originally published in the July 2019 print edition of The Review. All members, excluding student members, are eligible to receive the quarterly print edition of the magazine. Members can opt in to receive the print edition by logging in to MyCISI, clicking on My account, then clicking the Communications tab and selecting ‘Yes’.

Once you have read the print edition, keep coming back to the digital edition of The Review, which is updated regularly with news, features and comment about the Institute and the financial services sector.
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Published: 15 Aug 2019
  • Integrity & Ethics
  • Soft Skills
  • The Review
  • corporate social responsibility
  • work relationships
  • fairness
  • Anthony Hilton

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