Last reviewed 12 March 2018

In this article Alan Field poses the question, can international standards (like ISO 9001:2015) and other standards (such as SA 8000) help to put ethical policies into practice?


Recent scandals involving some aspects of the media and the not-for-profit sectors have thrown light on the fact that some senior management teams find it difficult to put the ethical policies they claim to support into day-to-day practice. Even some elements within the facilities management sector are not immune to allegations about, for example, exploitation of cleaners by not paying for all time worked.

Right things?

It is sometimes said that organisations should just “do things right” on a consistent basis — the very essence of a Quality Management System (QMS). However, “doing right things” can be more difficult to achieve.

Doing right things could mean taking the organisation in the direction that all stakeholders expect; or simply complying with law and regulation in a consistent way or where the organisation pursues corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies (sometimes known as corporate responsibility (CR)). This may be connected to brand promotion or wider ethical goals. Remember, what “right things” are will mean different policies to different organisations and this might be described as governance.

Doing right things also implies a notion of minimising risk and encouraging governance. In other words, the decisions of senior managers need some oversight. For example, doing things right could still miss essential elements such as a reputational risk exposure or it could be simply devoting time and energy to activities the organisation simply doesn’t want to focus on. This could be anything from getting involved with a client who has poor CSR records themselves, to pursuing new service lines which may not be profitable to, perhaps, stakeholders treating colleagues or customers in ways that shouldn’t be part of the organisation’s culture. For example, in facilities management, this might include the manner in which subcontractors treat their staff, irrespective of what the contract says they actually do.

One way for an organisation to manage risks is to minimise exposure to activities that do not support good governance. Standards can help provide a starting point or structure, to ensure right things cascade through all the processes and the individuals delivering them.

ISO 9001:2015 (an internal quality management standard and well adopted throughout the world) is a risk and leadership-based model. Many organisations are still completing their transition processes from ISO 9001:2008 to ISO 9001:2015 so this could be used as an opportunity to incorporate ethical and other governance policies more into the areas of processes of procedures.

For example, ISO 9001:2015 requires that the organisation defines its context of organisation, that is, the internal and external issues relevant to the organisation; these can include markets, regulation, threats and opportunities, technological change and, if appropriate, governance or ethical goals going forward. This then needs to be coupled with one of the other new requirements of ISO 9001:2015 — defining interested parties and their expectations of the QMS. This requires consideration as to who interested parties actually are, before considering their expectations of the QMS. This can lead to stakeholders who are not customers, and contractors may also have a wider influence on decisions about right things. For example, in the facilities management sector this could include all parties involved in a building whether they are customers or not.

Doing right things for the brand and the wider world?

Concerning CSR, there are number of approaches an organisation can take. For example, SA 8000 is an international certification standard (defined by Social Accountability International, a non-governmental organisation) that encourages organisations to develop, maintain and apply socially acceptable practices in the workplace. Another approach is to follow the requirements of ISO 2600:2010, or, of course, they may devise their own approach.

ISO has said “ISO 26000 provides guidance on how businesses and organisations can operate in a socially responsible way. This means acting in an ethical and transparent way that contributes to the health and welfare of society.” However, there are other ways of setting policies and processes for CSR as well.

Bureau Veritas, for example, has said that “ ISO 26000 covers all corporate social responsibility elements (social, economic and environmental), comprising seven core subjects in relation to stakeholders’ involvement. Meanwhile, SA 8000 covers the domain of social accountability (labour and working conditions), such as labour practices …… and management systems for human resources.”

CSR is usually looking at supply chain compliance and, in effect, other interested parties, ie are any of the parties in the chain breaking the law, exploiting their staff or natural resources in a way the CSR policies do not support. Sometimes the orbit of this will be deemed to include the wider community that the organisation impacts — be it in the UK or where any raw materials, finished products or other services are generated. In the facilities management sector, this may include the more SA 8000-type issues of ensuring all staff — whether directly employed or employed through contractors — are treated in a way that supports both the facilities management provider’s brand as well as supporting any other CSR goals.

For example, a business might not be “doing right things” by turning a blind eye to practices where contractor’s staff are treated materially different from the standards that the organisation says it requires. This may well be a cultural issue within the organisation and the standards can help here, by giving the opportunity to set strategic goals to be understood by all interested parties — including middle management — at both organisational and contractor level.

Where CSR is more geared to promoting the organisation’s brand by taking part in charitable activities, community outreach or promoting team working by encouraging staff to take part in events, then standards can help formulate why and how these activities are chosen. They can be a part of a wider approach to context, objectives and policy setting. In other words, community engagements (be these school visits, charitable runs, helping at care homes and other charitable activities are not just bolts-ons — they can be part of the organisation’s approach to business policy and objective setting. The decision could be that CSR is there to support the brand, promote team working or simply support the activities that a client or contractor are already involved in. Of course, the decision to support CSR may just be to promote an ethical policy within the organisation.

Leadership needs to clearly understand why it is they want to promote CSR — even voluntary events (that use the organisation’s name) are part of what it does as much as the core business activities.

In fact, there is no reason why quality management and CSR shouldn’t be integrated or combined in some way. Some organisations find that setting policy and objectives by taking into account CSR and other ethical goals makes good business sense.

After all, the facilities management sector is used to collaborating with clients, customers, landlords, contractors and others connected with a building or estate. CSR is ensuring the interests of all those parties in the chain.


Part of an organisation’s culture is dictated by how far they ensure “right things” are done.

Those who oversee what the leadership of an organisation does — be they owners, regulators, non-executive directors, trustees or others who provide governance to those who lead organisations — should decide what those right things are for the organisation concerned.

Although standards can play a big part in ensuring an organisation does these things, they cannot make an organisation do them or even necessarily prevent unwanted events from happening.

However, what standards always do is to provide a focal point for all stakeholders in an organisation. This enables processes and approaches to be set that allow ethical policies to be at the forefront of every decision — big and small — and these are key contributing to a right things culture.