What every ethics office needs: ambassadors and champions

by Grace Garland | Published on 27 July 2018 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when there were no ethics officers in South Africa. Ethics management was, sort of, spread, among a number of different organisational roles such as internal audit or risk management, or it was tucked somewhere under the legal and compliance person’s job description. Today, while we cannot claim that all organisations have an ethics office/r, it is fair to say that ethics has become a material concern in many organisations, and there is a growing acceptance that specialist expertise is required to handle the responsibility.


Helping each other

"An ethics officer’s efforts simply cannot be effective if they take place in isolation."

But can a person be trained to handle ethics responsibilities? Can the specialist expertise be acquired? Anybody familiar with the work of The Ethics Institute will know that we believe people can be trained in organisational ethics.

It is for this reason that we offered the very first Ethics Officer Certification Programme in 2004, and have certified over 850 individuals as ethics officers since. It’s an intense programme because it has to be – consisting of five days of in-class training, followed by a practical assignment that has to be completed over a 90-day period – in order to properly equip professionals “at the front line” of organisational ethics. These professionals can be described as being at the centre of all ethics-related initiatives, including assessing ethics risks and institutionalising ethics codes and policies, all in service of the higher goal of embedding an ethical organisational culture. The ethics officer is the worker bee, the engine room, the sticky stuff holding the organisation’s ethics endeavours together.

But the ethics officer’s efforts simply cannot be effective if they take place in isolation. That is not how ethics, or organisational culture, works. People working directly with ethics management need support “laterally” – from colleagues in other relevant organisational roles, irrespective of whether or not those roles have explicit ethics elements – and they also need support “from above”. The Ethics institute refers to these two types of vital allies as ethics ambassadors and ethics champions, and has developed bespoke training programmes for them too, to meet a growing need.

Such specialisation and streaming could only become possible once the concept of ethics-as-a-profession was sufficiently well-established. A great deal of the momentum can be attributed to regulatory reforms, including the Companies Act’s introduction of social and ethics committees, and of course the King Reports on Governance, in which considerations of organisational ethics have increased steadily in prominence over the four successive iterations. In the public sector, the Public Service Regulations and the Integrity Management Framework have had a similar effect.

So, who are ethics ambassadors? They are individuals in the organisation who act as informal promoters of, and advocates for, the ethics cause. They are often respected opinion leaders, irrespective of the hierarchical level at which their specific jobs are positioned. An ethics ambassador’s most important labour of love is to stimulate ethics talk as often as possible – to bring ethics into conversations and decision-making in an organic and unofficial fashion. The ethics officer does not sit in on every meeting – so, others need to develop an eye for identifying the potential ethical consequences of business decisions. These others are ethics ambassadors.

And ethics champions? They are senior leaders who provide the initial impetus for ethics initiatives and ensure that the initiatives maintain momentum. The ethics champion is often formally assigned as such by the governing body’s sub-committee for ethics or by the executive. This person acts as the “link” between the ethics office and the governing body (or a sub-committee of the governing body responsible for the governance of ethics). Ethics champions needs to ensure that the ethics office is properly resourced in terms of staff and budget., and they provide strategic guidance and general executive support to the ethics office.

An ethics champion’s labour of love is similar to that of the ethics ambassador: to consistently carry the ethics flag into those discussions where the ethics officer is not present, especially senior leadership meetings where major strategic decisions are taken and nobody wants to be the first to say the “E” word. So, the ethics champion must.

Neither of these roles is particularly easy, as they require courage, but both can be made far more accessible through specific training. Such training can take them through basic concepts related to ethics, the governance of ethics, the management of ethics, and the specific responsibilities associated with their roles. To this end, The Ethics Institute offers a two-day programme for ambassadors and a one-day programme for champions. Our goal is to equip attendees with the tools and understanding to feel comfortable to return to the workplace and be effective allies of the ethics office so that, in the end, the organisation has a better chance of building an ethical culture.

It will be interesting to see what further specialisation takes place in future as the trend of professionalisation continues. Ultimately, these changes reflect a broader shift in thinking not only locally, but also internationally, that the integrity of companies and governments is not something that can be left to take care of itself. If we are to build a more just society, we need just organisations that are comprised of individual people committed to, and sufficiently trained in, ethics.

  • Click here for a clear, one-page breakdown of the difference between an ethics officer, ethics ambassador and ethics champion.
  • Click here for more information on our upcoming ethics champion training on 10 October 2018.
  • Click here for more information on our upcoming ethics ambassadors training on 11-12 October 2018.

Grace Cricle 3


Grace Garland is the Editorial and Communications Manager at The Ethics Institute. She holds a Master of Business Administration from University of Stellenbosch Business School. She is currently studying towards a Master of Applied Ethics at University of the Witwatersrand.