It's in the workplace that our commitment to ethics is truly tested, especially in deciding how much to pay an employee and how to handle the termination of one's employment. Angela Priestley reports
Danny Gilbert readily admits that he is no expert on the philosophy of ethics and morals.
However, the managing partner of Gilbert + Tobin is one of the most high profile leaders in the legal profession, one who has demonstrated a commitment to pro bono work and community service throughout his career.
This perhaps explains why he was chosen by the Vincent Fairfax Foundation to speak on "Leading an Ethical Life", with particular reference to ethical and moral hazards in the workplace.
Delivering the speech at the Sydney office of Gilbert + Tobin last week, Gilbert said that our moral and ethical duty to treat others with decency can be easily met in our transactions with family and friend, but that such a duty becomes more demanding in the workplace.
"One should always start with the principle that we treat people as an end in themselves and not as a means to an end," he said. "This reasoning informs the obligation to be open and honest with people about where they stand in the organisation and how they are progressing."
This reasoning, added Gilbert, also reflects how people should be paid - which is always a particularly difficult ethical question.
"There is no perfect answer of course, but I have long thought that the better approach is to try as far as possible to pay people at the top of the market in which your business operates," he said. "This is a good approach beyond the question of what is the right thing to do. It creates positive relationships between employer and employee, including very importantly, trust and respect."
Gilbert said leaders also see their ethics tested in how they handle the termination of an individual's employment. "At this point the relationship is ending. It is very easy to act peremptorily and tell someone to pack their bags," said Gilbert.
"It is much more difficult, more time consuming and more expensive to engage in a conversation and process which is respectful of the person's own sense of identity, integrity and self belief."
Gilbert also used his speech to express concern about politicians who do not have "a deep and abiding respect for truth and authenticity in public debate".
He said that following last year's Federal election, Australians have been left with a political system focused on "short-termism" and populist and opportunistic rhetoric that fails to recognise the deep issues at hand.
"The risk here is that we do damage to our capacity to distinguish between and to choose between what is right and what is merely popular," he said. "Ultimately, we run the risk of doing damage to our national conscience and heart as well as to the fragile processes that allow us to discuss public matters democratically."
On wealth, Gilbert noted that he's not concerned about the question of "how much money is too much".
He said that we need to have rich people in our communities, as well as opportunities for people to become rich, but warned that wealth carries certain responsibilities.
"It's not as if the wealthy have made their money on their own," said Gilbert. "The briefest examination of how an individual's wealth has been built will reveal the contribution of many people and very often fertile social, political and economic conditions to which there have been many contributions
"Wealthy people have responsibilities not only to assist in raising living standards and opportunities for everyone, but to contribute to the well-being of our communities and to civil society more generally."
Gilbert delivered his speech to an audience that included his employees and colleagues, judges, NSW Governor Professor Marie Bashir, Sir Nicholas Shehadie, members of the Fairfax family as well as his own parents and family.
He said that humanity is devalued if we fail to reference long valued ethical and moral standards in our lives. "Now that may be putting it too strongly, but I would say that at a minimum we fall short of 'the labour to be beautiful'," he said referring to WB Yeats poem, "Adam's Curse"