by Daphne Biliouri-Grant
Defining integrity within a corporate context is not that different from what people understand it to be on a personal level. Integrity is about having a strong moral compass and within an organisation this translates in adherence to a moral code that is reflected through accountability and transparency. Both accountability and transparency are one of the issues that fall under the Governance pillar of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) principles.
The concept of integrity becomes the focal point of an ESG-driven strategy due to the fact that ESG considerations are built on a set of values that are realised through an organisation’s human capital. It is evidenced that companies that are led by individuals that demonstrate a strong sense of integrity and support a value-driven strategy, tend to integrate and implement ESG values more effectively and more timely within the operational structure of the company.
For example, the transformation of Unilever under Paul Polman’s leadership between 2009-2019, was accredited to his forward thinking on putting integrity at the core of his ESG-driven agenda. As a result, Unilever maintained its profitability and increased its overall positive reputation through the dramatic improvement of its ESG performance.
It is also important to recognise that integrity is not just about possessing a strong set of values at a leadership level, but reflecting the same set of values through the workforce and demonstrating them through the company’s operations.
Companies that ‘live and breathe’ their values are the ones that deliver quality in their products and services, perform in an accountable and transparent manner, are perceived positively by their clients, and as a result have a competitive edge within their industry. It is the realisation that only when a company fully aligns its corporate purpose with ESG considerations that it can achieve a leadership role within its industry.
Integrity as a driver reinforces the fact that ESG considerations should be embedded in the strategy of the company and represent its corporate purpose. It is integrity that serves as the foundation that guides a company’s actions and behaviours. Operating on the basis of honesty, transparency and mutual respect both in terms of your employees, your contractors and your clients ensures the positive reputation and longevity of the company.
Integrity becomes even more significant during moments of adversity, when the company is faced with negative reputation due to a bad business decision. Companies often apply business practices that might promise short-term gains, but can become a reputational risk. When that happens, responding with integrity by taking responsibility, admitting to making the wrong decision and showing remorse plays a vital role in protecting the company’s reputation and inevitably its assets.
Darian Stibbe, Executive Director at The Partnering Initiative, an organisation that facilitates collaboration among businesses, governments, NGOs and the United Nations, highlighted the importance of taking responsibility and being transparent: “One way you can tell a genuine statement on ESG from one that’s less genuine is if it talks about challenges and admits to errors.’”
Applying the expression ‘honesty is the best policy’ is often the best solution in safeguarding the reputation of a company and it is an essential part of an ESG-driven strategy. It reinforces the fact that being accountable and operating in a transparent manner is essential for the longevity of a company or organisation.
As a final point, it is essential to acknowledge that as the business community is adapting to the cultural shift towards a value-driven system, integrity is no longer perceived as a ‘nice-to-have’ option but as a game changer for the evolution of the corporate world.
This is the way that transformational change towards a more value-driven system can materialise. And it is this value-driven system that will establish a more balanced and holistic approach between profitability, social purpose, good reputation and longevity.