Where is the ethical line?

When a reputation is ruined following a company or an individual being accused of ‘crossing the ethical line’ it begs the questions: just where is the ethical line? Perhaps more importantly, who is drawing it? And when ethics is a core tenet of reputation, what does this mean for reputation managers?

There have been many cases recently where companies and individuals have been held to account for actions and behaviours that are perfectly legal, but are judged as being unethical, with sometimes devastating results for the accused.

I wrote last year about the reputation risk facing Facebook, how its practices were out of step with the expectations and values of stakeholders and wider society. That risk became a reality as Facebook stood accused of crossing an ethical line in the way it had exploited its users’ data. The result so far has been value destruction and Facebook having to rethink its business model.

Likewise, Sir Bradley Wiggins had his reputation tarnished when he was also accused of ‘crossing an ethical line’ by, in his case, his use of pre-approved Asthma medicines. Let’s be clear here – (at the time of writing) neither Facebook nor Bradley Wiggins have been found to have done anything illegal. Yet they have both been held to account in the court of public opinion, accused – and in effect found guilty – of crossing an ethical line.

In both cases, there are two things at play. The first is the say/do gap i.e. a misalignment of what is said versus what is done. The other is a misunderstanding or misreading, or possibly even disregarding, what really matters to important stakeholders.

Mark Zuckerburg, speaking in 2004 said “on Facebook, people own and control their own data” then a few years later, said to investors “protecting our community is more important than maximising our profits”. Both statements are not accurate reflections of how Facebook subsequently behaved in sharing its users’ data with third parties.

Bradley Wiggins has been outspoken in his objections to doping – going so far as calling Lance Armstrong a lying bastard back in 2013 – yet the consensus in the sporting world suggests that he certainly benefited from the use of an approved drug – he stretched the boundaries to a point where he crossed a line.

Both Facebook and Wiggins said one thing and did another.

They also misunderstood or misread how their behaviours would play with their key stakeholders i.e. users and fans. Both perhaps guilty of allowing their popularity and success to distract them from ethical considerations.

So, where is the ethical line? Well, that sits squarely with stakeholders. They decide where the line is. And you might not see it until that line is crossed and they turn on you, by which time the damage is done.

What all this means for those of us tasked with building and protecting reputation is (thankfully) nothing new but evidently easily overlooked.

What we advocate and advise our clients here at Tovera is also reflected in a 2015 report by the law firm Schillings. That is, that to avoid reputation risks becoming reality requires two things: first, ensuring there is no gap between business reality and stakeholder perceptions and secondly, a regular dialogue with key stakeholders to keep abreast of the issues that matter to them.

Both have qualitative stakeholder engagement at their heart. So if you want to be crystal clear where the ethical line is, and where you currently stand, you need to keep a regular, honest, objective qualitative research channel open with your key stakeholders.


Spencer Fox is a reputation and corporate brand adviser. He has advised companies such as Just Eat, Novartis, ITV, L’Oréal and Tesco on how to build and protect reputation. He is a founding partner of Tovera Consulting – a brand and reputation research, strategy and advice consultancy. Tovera helps companies build both strong brands and reputations as both are critical to long-term business survival. www.tovera.consulting