Ethics and competition

March 26, 2016

EthicsThe report of The Senate Education and Employment References Committee report: A National Disgrace: The Exploitation of Temporary Work Visa Holders; released on the 17th March highlights a major National problem.

The report consolidates and affirms issues raised in some of our earlier posts including:

In a nutshell, the report confirms that large numbers of unethical employers are routinely exploiting 1000s of temporary visa holders to inflate their profits.  The report is worrying reading and hopefully will result in proactive government action to stamp out the worst of the excesses.   It’s in the government’s interest, many of the exploited visa holders in work are preventing an unemployed Australian from obtaining work; this is equally true in the unskilled categories and in skilled categories where skilled, older workers are frequently discriminated against.

What is more worrying, and the focus of this post is the ‘Coalition Senators’ total failure to understand business and competition.  One of the major areas of malfeasance with some of the worst exploitation of temporary workers is the Labour Hire business.  The committee recommendation #32 is that:

9.309 The committee recommends that a licensing regime for labour hire contractors be established with a requirement that a business can only use a licensed labour hire contractor to procure labour. There should be a public register of all labour hire contractors. Labour hire contractors must meet and be able to demonstrate compliance with all workplace, employment, tax, and superannuation laws in order to gain a license. In addition, labour hire contractors that use other labour hire contractors, including those located overseas, should be obliged to ensure that those subcontractors also hold a license.

In an annex to the main report, Coalition Senators state that they do not agree with this recommendation on the basis ‘it would punish those labour hire firms which are already complying with relevant laws’; and that the actions of a ‘minority of labour hire firms which are doing the wrong thing, in most cases, is already illegal’.

No one likes additional ‘red tape’ so superficially the Coalition Senators position is understandable.  What the Coalition Senators ignore is the effect the illegal activity is already having on the honest firms they purport to support!  The owners and operators of the dishonest firms using illegal and exploitative practices do not expect to get caught, and if they are caught expect the profits they make from their activities to significantly outweigh the penalties. Unethical is not synonymous with ‘stupid’ – the people making the decision to act illegally expect to make large profits. However, as a consequence of their illegal actions:

  • Honest labour hire firms cannot compete on price with the dishonest firms exploiting temporary workers and suffer as a consequence. The honest operators either make far less profit or go out of business.
  • The users of ‘hired labour’ from labour hire firms are also in competition and need to minimise input costs. They are incentivised to accept the low-cost offerings from the dishonest firms exploiting temporary workers and not to look too closely at their practices to compete within their market.  The alternative is to pay more for the workers and be at a competitive disadvantage to organisations that ‘turn a blind eye’ to the problem.

A licensing scheme will increase the cost of compliance for all of the businesses in the labour hire market, but if implemented properly, it will have the effect of largely eliminating the unfair competition created by the unethical exploitation of temporary workers.  Which will be hugely beneficial to those ‘honest’ businesses that are acting ethically and already fulfil their legal and moral obligations; both within the labour hire industry and the wider community.

The Coalition Senators do ‘support the prosecution of these illegal operations’ (as does everyone) the problems with implementing a clean up strategy focused on prosecutions alone are:

  1. The damage is done before the prosecution can take place.
  2. No prosecution stops illegal behaviour in the future. In an unlicensed regime the same unethical people can set up other businesses and carry on indefinitely through a series of ‘phoenix companies’.
  3. As suggested above, no criminal expects to get caught – deterrence is highly overrated.

Licences may not be ideal, but they do offer a practical way to support ethical behaviour that ‘prosecutions’ cannot. Good governance at every level is getting the balance between rules and flexibility right – the balance needs to support ethical behaviour without constricting innovation and growth. No one except the criminals benefits from the situation exposed in the Senate report that allows virtually unfettered unethical behaviour.

The art of ‘practical ethics’ is to develop systems that disadvantage unethical behaviour and encourage people to do the right thing. The combination of a beefed up ability to prosecute offenders and a licensing system that will make it difficult for unethical operators to remain in the labour hire business is the best way to drive the culture change needed in this industry, and in the businesses that rely on labour hire firms for their staffing needs.

Practical Ethics 2

March 10, 2016

EthicsA couple of weeks ago I posted Practical Ethics discussing the undue reliance governments and others  place on other people’s ethics, Through naivety, undue optimism, or laziness, they set up situations based on blind trust in the ethical standards of others which have resulted in deaths, injury and the loss of $billions.

In this post I want to look inside an organisation and discuss reason why Determining the ethics of the organisation is at #2 in my Six Functions of Governance and Creating the culture of the organisation is at #3.  #1 in the list is Determining the objectives of the organisation.

The underlying approach I’ve taken, founded in stakeholder theory, is the presumption that the best way to achieve an organisation’s objectives is to work with the organisation’s full spectrum of stakeholders so they contribute to the success of the organisation and everyone benefits. This requires a strong ethical foundation and an outwardly focused culture. The role of the governing body is to set the objectives and create the organisation’s culture and ethics, the role of management is to work within this framework to achieve the objectives. Whilst many aspects of governance can be delegated to a degree, setting the ethical standards of the organisation in particular is non-transferable. It starts and stops at the top – with the governing body.

The ethical standards of an organisation are created in two ways:

  • The way the organisation’s leaders act;
  • The ethical standards the leaders are prepared to tolerate in their subordinates.

This post will look at both of these aspects, using the example of the current scandal surrounding Comminsure (the insurance arm of the CBA bank) to highlight their importance – see more on the scandal.


Leaders set the standard.

Generally speaking, the top managers in an organisation create a ceiling on ethical behaviours. Leaders at the next level down tend to be rated lower than their managers on every leadership dimension including their honesty and integrity, many may rate equally but it is very rare to find a subordinate acting more ethically than the organisation’s leaders (for more on this see Ethical Leadership).

The key here is the word ‘act’ – leaders set the ethical standards of the organisation by their actions, not their statements. It more than ‘walking-the-talk’, talking is almost irrelevant.

One glaring examples from the Comminsure scandal will serve to demonstrate the issue.  The CBA’s CEO said that he placed a high value on transparency and open communication; this included both encouraging and protecting ‘whistleblowers’ within the bank. A commendable and highly ethical position; and from a practical perspective essential for the minimisation of wrong doing in a workforce of 55,000.

However, actions speak louder than words! In November 2014 the chief medical officer of Comminsure, Dr Benjamin Koh, disclosed his concerns over “an improper state of affairs” concerning aspects of Comminsure’s business to key independent directors at Comminsure including the chairman Geoff Austin. Two months later Comminsure began to investigate Dr Koh and he was sacked by the managing director of Comminsure, Helen Troup, for ‘misconduct’, in August 2015. He is now suing Comminsure and the CBA for unfair dismissal.

The appearance is that the bank’s management won’t fire you for whistle blowing but they will find some other excuse. The bank virtually admits as much, in this statement which states: “Commonwealth Bank encourages all employees to speak up if they see activities or behaviours that are fraudulent, illegal or inconsistent with our values. We provide a number of different safeguards to ensure that there are no negative consequences for raising concerns. We have thanked Dr Koh for raising concerns that led to the CMLA Board conducting a review. Dr Koh’s employment was not terminated for raising concerns. It was terminated primarily for serious and repeated breaches of customers’ privacy and trust involving highly sensitive personal, medical and financial information over a lengthy period of time.”  What they fail to mention was one of major issues raised by Dr. Koh was the manipulation, alteration and loss of information from the records he is accused of mishandling.

The perception may be incorrect, but to anyone looking on from outside of the organisation it would seem the person running Comminsure preferred to sack a whistleblower rather than deal with the problems he raised.

The CEO and the Directors of CBA can talk until they are blue in the face about the ‘ethical standards’ they purport to uphold, their actions speak louder. The person running Comminsure and responsible for the issues raised by Dr. Koh is still in her role, the ‘whistleblower’ is out of a job. If the board really meant what is says, the whistleblower would have been protected and the manager attacking him disciplined. Everyone else in CBA will clearly understand the message.

It really does not matter what the final outcome of all of this is; the actions of CBA and Comminsure management have made it clear to every one of their 55,000 staff that if you raise concerns within the banks ‘whistleblower’ processes you will be fired!

Given this perception, is it any wonder that the leaders of the CBA seem to be continually in the dark about what’s really going on in their organisation……..  Unfortunately for those in governance role not knowing is not an excuse.


Tolerating unethical behaviour.

Ethics2The second plank underpinning an ethical organisation is the degree of unethical behaviour it is prepared to tolerate. If an organisation is prepared to tolerate a person increasing his or her bonus by not paying out an insurance claim to a dying person for 3 or 4 years, everyone else in the organisation will understand the acceptable level of behaviour.

Comminsure has been shown to have withheld legitimate payments to claimants for years to boost profits and bonuses (only rectified after the national broadcast was imminent).  As far as I can tell everyone responsible from the managing director down are still in their jobs.

Previously the CBA was shown, courtesy of a Senate enquiry, to have misrepresented information to clients and falsified documents.  Again, most of the people responsible still work for the CBA and the ethical benchmark has been determined by this fact.

If the behaviours were ethically unacceptable people would be fired or moved into roles where they cannot adversely affect customer’s lives. The fact most people are still in their roles and still have their bonus payments from previous years indicates to everyone the CBA believes these behaviours are ethically acceptable and will continue to reward people for placing profits ahead of customers (see The normalisation of deviant behaviours). Management’s actions speak far louder then PR announcements and so called ‘public apologies’ that only eventuate after adverse national publicity.



Culture is ‘the way we do thing around here’ – one of the key elements of culture is the ethical standards people see as ‘normal’; another is the learned experience of how to behave within the organisation. As outlined above these settings are very different from the rhetoric.

But, ethics and culture are always shades of grey; the CBA’s culture is clearly flawed if the bank claims to be concerned about its customers. However, if the CBA is really only concerned with short-term profits, the culture, ethics and PR spin may be appropriate. In the last 6 months, the CBA achieved a remarkable return on equity of above 17 per cent, and a $4.8 billion half-year profit. And, despite the scandal, its shares have increased in price today. The cost is the damaged lives of some of its customers; the unresolved question is what are the acceptable limits? Maybe a Royal Commission will let everyone know.

Legal implications aside, the challenge facing the CBA is that changing culture and ethical standards is a massively difficult task and the people who created and thrive in the current culture are unlikely to be willing participants in changing it.  There’s no easy answer to this dilemma.



The real measure of an organisation’s ethical standards are set by the way people behave when no one is looking on – there will always be mistakes and unethical actions by a few, others within the organisation will correct these deviations and being behaviours back inside the culturally acceptable norms of behaviour of the organisation. This has undoubtedly been occurring within CBA and Comminsure on a daily basis, unacceptable behaviours will have been corrected or sanctioned; desired behaviours rewarded. What’s acceptable and unacceptable is determined by the culture of the organisation and its ethical standards.

The ethical standards of an organisation are set by the actions of its leaders. What they do themselves sets the ceiling and what they tolerate in others the floor. The rest of the people in an organisation will generally find a position between these two limits and the culture of the organisation will adapt to see this level of ethical behaviour as acceptable. The problem the governors and leaders of the CBA face is the simple fact that changing the ethics and culture of an established organisation is extremely difficult.

Making Ethics Effective

September 14, 2015

EthicsAn organisation can espouse the highest ethical standards but if these are not supported and enforced they are simply nice statements that look appealing. The challenge is to have the right levels of support and just enough enforcement.

Headline news in Australia over the last couple of weeks (with months to run) is the appalling treatment of franchisees and their staff by the 7-Eleven chain.  To survive (and in some cases profit) many 7-Eleven franchisees resorted to underpaying staff by a standard 50%.  The TV expose and press reports indicate multiple breaches of employment legislation, occupational health and safety legislation, corporations law and taxation legislation.  Most of the focus at the moment is on the students who allowed themselves to be trapped into the wages scam.  This post will suggest these people are not the ‘biggest losers’.

The whole 7-Eleven chain was benefitting from the scam.  Head office made more profit, the franchisees reduced their wage bill by up to 50% (their primary cost under the franchise arrangements) and the students received their reduced pay.  Whilst in some cases there may have been elements of coercion used to keep the students employed, everyone got into the deal voluntarily.

The major losers in this scam were people who rely on the workings of the law and run their businesses honestly.  Two major groups are the corner shop-keepers who paid the lawful minimum wage and saw their businesses destroyed because the 7-Eleven ‘model’ undercut costs illegally and the unemployed people who did not get jobs because they had the audacity to expect to be paid their legal entitlements.

People in these groups faced a major ethical dilemma, go out of business (or remain unemployed) or ‘bend the law’ to survive in completion with a chain that was prepared to allow widespread malpractice.  Not an easy decision!

I would suggest the major failing was not the ethics of the 7-Eleven chain: the erosion of ethical standards is usually slow and insidious. The real problem appears to be the government agencies tasked with enforcing the law.  Over several decades government departments have been steadily stripped of resources and these days can only adequately respond to ‘major issues’ –  they are forced to assume ethical behaviour by most people most of the time and even when advised of blatant breaches will generally ignore the issue if it is considered minor.

One example we confront regularly is breaches of the Australian Competition and Consumer Act 2010 – one of the Act’s primary requirements is honesty in advertising, the advertised price of any goods of services should be the minimum price the consumer has to pay.  We routinely see Google advertisements targeted at our training market in Melbourne offering ultra cheap prices.  Click through to the related web page listing the training courses in Melbourne and the price increases, spend 15 minutes filling in registration forms and you eventually see the price you are required to pay (with all of the taxes and changes now added)!   This is a deliberate strategy by unethical organisations – the low price gets people onto their web site, and inertia keeps them there (particularly after spending effort on filling in the forms) so they end up paying far more than is necessary for an equivalent course.  The practice is so widespread, particularly with overseas based training providers, we regularly find people asking us if our prices are ‘real’ and ‘how much will they actually pay’ – the answer is simple, we conform to the law and charge the advertised price.

However, this was not an easy decision to make! We have had to reduce prices and increase advertising to attempt to off-set the illegal practices of others. Complaints to authorities go unheeded because they simply do not have the resources to deal with a relatively minor issue and business suffers.

When ethical standards start to slip several things tend to happen, ethical people move away to somewhere where their standards are not being challenged, less-ethical people move in and further degrade standards and many other people simply learn to ignore the problem (see The normalisation of deviant behaviours). And once unethical or corrupt behaviour becomes normalised, reversing the situation is extremely difficult. Press reports suggest that some 7-Eleven franchisees who have been forced to pay proper wages are now using extortion to demand 50% of the money back from the employee (outside of the premises so the extortion is not recorded), or the worker loses his/her job.

At a national level one hopes the 7-Eleven furore when added to the construction of a refuelling wharf in the Tiwi Islands without environmental approval (the government agency did not have the resources to investigate in a timely way), the blatant abuse of the vocational training scheme by some commercial organisations and numerous other failures will cause a re-think of the way business and government approach regulation.

Certainly the removal of unnecessary bureaucracy, regulations and other forms of red tape is to be encouraged. However, if the government decides a regulation is desirable, proper and comprehensive enforcement should be automatically provided. The failure to enforce regulations penalises the honest, ethical organisations who feel obliged to comply; and advantages the dishonest who chose to breach the regulation and balance the low cost of getting ‘caught’ against the additional profits garnered from ignoring the provision. Prosecuting a few ‘rule breakers’ 5 or 6 years after the event is not an appropriate way to govern – the damage is already done.

What does this mean within organisations and projects?  Effective governance sets the ‘rules and objectives’ for the organisation (see: The Functions of Governance). Management and staff operate within those rules to achieve the objectives. A key element in a well designed governance framework is the feedback loop providing assurance of management accountability and compliance.  This loop needs three elements:

  • A clear articulation of acceptable and unacceptable behaviours at all levels of the organisation, with senior leaders ‘walking the talk’.
  • Proactive surveillance to identify issues and opportunities as early as possible backed up by effective improvement processes (see: Proactive Project Surveillance).
  • Rigorous, but fair, enforcement processes to deal with breaches.

The last point is the most difficult to get right.  The system needs to be open and accountable, apply both natural justice and the ‘presumption of innocence’, deal with the root cause of the breach, avoid scapegoating, and be trusted.  One element is ensuring effective reporting and ‘whistle blowing’ processes are available so that people (both internal and external to the organisation) who believe there is an issue can raise the matter safely – its impossible to enforce rules if people in authority don’t know (or don’t want to know) about the breach.

The good news is that if these types of system are in place, the organisation will develop a self-reinforcing ethical culture.  Unethical people will leave to find somewhere easier for them making way for people who want to work in an ethical environment.  Fairly soon, everyone holds both themselves and other accountable.

However, this situation cannot be taken for granted! The presence of the surveillance and enforcement processes underpin these highly desirable behaviours.  If the organisation makes the same mistake the Australian governments have repeatedly made over the last 10 years of deregulation and simply ‘hope’ everyone will do the right thing it won’t take long for the slide into unethical behaviour to start.  Hope is not a strategy, good governance requires assurance that the organisation’s objectives are being achieved, and effective assurance needs both surveillance and enforcement capabilities.