Ethical careers – stay true to your roots

It is easy to assume that business and ethics don’t mix. Unchecked, the pursuit of profit can lead to excesses of commercial greed, epitomised by sweatshops, child labour and environmental destruction. But it doesn’t have to be like that, of course. Yet if you would rather scratch your eyes out than work for ‘the man’, it is worth remembering that a traditional career does not always mean leaving your values at reception.

The private sector accounts for more than 80% of the UK workforce, while charities and the voluntary sector employ only one in 50 workers. Within this vast commercial arena, there is no single industry standard for ethics.

As an engineer, for example, you might choose to work for a small arms firm, or a company specialising in renewable energy. Equally, a career in finance at an unethical investment bank cannot be compared to a similar post at a socially responsible organisation, such as The Co-operative Bank.

Most companies rest somewhere between these extremes. For ethically-minded jobseekers, this grey area is hard to negotiate. Targeting only the most ethical organisations means seriously cutting your options. Step into the mainstream, and it’s difficult to know just how ethical a business really is.

The internet is a good place to start, and detective work is made easier thanks to the emergence of corporate social responsibility (CSR), which recognises the need to give, or at least be seen to give, something back to society. Image-conscious companies frequently devote huge chunks of their website to publicising their good deeds. But remember, they will only focus on the positive.

To unearth a company’s less savoury activities, websites such as Corporate Watch provide a list of offending enterprises. But it’s not an exact science. The Ethical Trading Initiative, for example, which according to its website ‘aims to improve the lives of poor working people around the world’, includes supermarket chain Tesco in its membership, which is criticised on Corporate Watch.

And yet, the increasing desire to present a socially responsible face shows companies are taking ethics more seriously. Dan Ferrandino, director of recruitment website, acknowledges the shift in attitudes. ‘Some of the large graduate employers have redefined their talent framework. Historically, they would measure skills like leadership, drive and teamwork; now they are increasingly taking into account integrity and honesty – qualities they would not have measured before.’

His message for graduates is to first work out their own ethical position and then research the market. For some, a simple office recycling scheme might meet all their expectations. Others might demand more.

An important decision to make when considering a private sector career is whether to work for a large or small enterprise. Size, it seems, really does matter. A large, financially powerful organisation, for instance, provides massive potential for positive change, but there is a correspondingly increased risk of becoming a small ethical cog in an otherwise unethical machine. A small budget business, meanwhile, might be run along more ethical principles, but meagre resources can restrict the impact of its good intentions.

A key question is whether it is possible to change corporates from within. While it’s unrealistic to anticipate turning an environmentally irresponsible oil conglomerate into a wholly green concern overnight, the more ethically minded people enter the corporate sector, the greater the chances of widespread positive change.

Michael Skrein, pro bono director at the international law firm Richards Butler, which provides free legal advice through the human rights charity Liberty, says that combined action does have the power to improve business practice at industry level.

‘The picture in the legal profession has definitely changed for the better in the past 10 years. It might simply be a case of people realising they should be seen to be doing something, but it’s still a positive cycle.’

The corporate world can be an excellent place to gain valuable skills and experience, which can later used to benefit either ethically minded businesses or the charity sector.

Geoff Taylor, northern property manager at The Ethical Property Company, which buys and develops properties for charities and voluntary groups, previously worked at a multinational commercial real estate company. ‘I brought over a lot of valuable skills from working in a global organisation,’ he says. ‘The commercial side was much harder hitting, and my experience of that world has really helped our work here.’

Many of these skills, however, can also be learnt from ethical companies in the private sector, which are run just as professionally as their purely profit driven peers.

Brighton-based architecture firm DRP provides 50 hours of free work each year to the voluntary sector through the national ProHelp network. Partner Giles Ings says his company’s ethical work is a triple-win situation. ‘It helps the business, the community and the students we get to work on the ProHelp projects,’ he says. ‘Plus it’s a real asset when it comes to recruitment.’

Skrein agrees. Companies are becoming increasingly concerned with appealing to graduates’ hearts, not just their wallets. ‘Before the choice was either to go into the City and become a lawyer or do some good in the world,’ he said. ‘If you can show someone you can do both, that’s a real selling point.’.

Employers, whether private corporations, public services or charities, will now often tell anyone prepared to listen about their ethical policies, and how much they care. But for some, the talk is just that.

2. Don’t presume a charity or NGO has got its ethical house in order. They may be better than many companies, but that doesn’t mean they will have cutting-edge policies.

3. There are various organisations that deliver a kind of MOT on environmental and social policies. ‘There are a lot of companies which find it very difficult to pass our tests,’ said Leo Martin, co-founder of ethical checker GoodCorporation.

4. The government-backed charity Business in the Community, which helps companies become more socially responsible, grants two awards: the ‘Big Tick’ and ‘Awards for Excellence’. It also manages a Corporate Responsibility Index, which companies sign up to voluntarily.

5. Large companies on the FTSE250 can apply to be on the FTSE4Good index, which lists those committed to ethical policies. For smaller companies, the ‘Community Mark’ is awarded to those with strong community involvement.

6. If the information you are after is not immediately available, it does not necessarily spell trouble, especially if you are looking into a small company.

It may seem daunting to give a prospective employer the third degree on what they are doing to save the planet or whether they have any links with corrupt regimes, writes Helen McCormack. But any organisation committed to being ethically sound will welcome questions on what they are doing to achieve this.

What you should ask
Does it run any volunteering schemes or a Give As You Earn scheme? Does the company have a written equal opportunities policy?

Environment: Many companies recycle paper, but does this extended to other waste? Does it have an environment policy? Does it strive towards being carbon neutral? Does it measure its emissions?

Corporate social responsibility: Does the company have a CSR policy? Is there a dedicated member of staff implementing it? What opportunities are there to get involved?

Auditing: Biting the bullet and producing environmental and social audits are a good indication of ethical activities, but not all companies do this. If there is one, are employees encouraged to read it?

Clean money: A company can make all the right noises about being ethically sound, while secretly investing in companies involved in corrupt regimes or arms trading. What does the company do to ensure its money is invested ethically? There are organisations that monitor where a company’s money ends up. Does the company use one? Does it offer an ethical pension scheme?

Trading and purchasing: Does the company have a policy towards suppliers, or an ethical purchasing policy?

If they do not have any ethical policies yet, but are committed to introducing some, then perhaps that’s your cue to get a foot in the door, and get them started.

The Ethical Careers Guide is published on 28 March. For more information go to

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