Sally Percy, journalist

Even when we know that something is right or wrong, we can find it hard to speak our minds at work. Standing up for our values can be especially difficult when our managers, colleagues, customers or shareholders are pressurising us to do the opposite.

The result is that we don’t always act on our values and ethical principles in the context of our professional roles – to the detriment of our organisations and ourselves.

Recognising the challenge of being able to express our ethical concerns is an educational curriculum developed by Dr Mary Gentile, now professor of practice at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business in the US.

‘Most of us want to act on our values, but we also want to feel we can do so effectively’

The Giving Voice to Values (GVV) curriculum offers practical exercises, cases, modules, scripts and teaching plans for handling a wide range of ethical conflicts in the workplace. Gentile has also outlined her thinking in a book entitled Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right.

The GVV curriculum has been piloted in over 1,000 schools, companies and other organisations across all seven continents. Among the adopters are the CFA Institute, the global body for investment professionals, which has incorporated the curriculum into its ethical training programme.

What is GVV?

GVV offers a constructive and action-orientated framework for applying ethics in our professional lives. It focuses on the following kinds of question: What if I were going to act on my values? What would I say and do? How could I be most effective? What would I need to say? To whom? And in what sequence? What objections would I face? And how could I overcome those objections?

This approach to working through challenges is known as the ‘GVV Thought Experiment’. ‘GVV is not about persuading people to be more ethical,’ explains Gentile. ‘Rather it starts from the premise that most of us already want to act on our values, but that we also want to feel that we have a reasonable chance of doing so effectively and successfully. The GVV pedagogy and curriculum are about raising those odds.’

The GVV approach is based on seven pillars, identified by Gentile after she reviewed examples of people who had found ways to enact their values (see box).

Means of empowerment

Fundamentally, GVV empowers people to voice their values in the workplace. In this way, it complements traditional, compliance-orientated approaches to ethics, such as those used by the investment industry.

According to Jon Stokes, director of professional standards at the CFA Institute, investment firms tend to encourage awareness and analysis of ethical challenges, followed by a determination of which rules to follow.

‘Acting on ethical values is a competency that can be learned, like a new sport’

‘While not diminishing the importance of developing policies, incentives to act ethically and an ethical firm culture, GVV goes beyond these initial steps,’ says Stokes. ‘It focuses on action-oriented ethical leadership in the face of challenges to ethical principles and values.

‘Voicing and acting on ethical values is a competency that can be learned, like learning a new sport or musical instrument,’ he says. ‘It can be broken into component parts and practised so that it eventually becomes second nature.’

Gentile argues that GVV is highly applicable to the accounting and finance profession, not least because rationalisations such as ‘it is standard operating procedure’ are commonly heard in an accounting and finance context.

‘By rehearsing ways to defuse, respond to and reframe these arguments, professionals in accounting and finance can feel more comfortable raising questions and concerns before the situation becomes dire,’ she says.

GVV's seven pillars

  1. Know and appeal to a shortlist of widely shared values, including compassion, fairness, honesty, respect and responsibility. When we encounter a values conflict, it helps to frame our approach by appealing to core values that others are likely to share.
  2. Believe that you have a choice to act on your values by examining your own track record. Identify what has enabled and disabled you in the past so you can work with, and around, these factors. Recognise, respect and appeal to the capacity for choice in others.
  3. Values conflicts are not aberrations or exceptional situations. Expect values conflicts so that you can approach them calmly and competently. If you overreact, you may limit your choices unnecessarily.
  4. You are more likely to voice your values effectively if you can define both your personal and professional purpose. Define these before conflicts arise. What is the impact you most want to have? Similarly, appeal to a sense of purpose in others.
  5. Self-knowledge, self-image and alignment. All types of personality can act on their values effectively. Act in a way that is tailored to your personality and strengths.
  6. We are more likely to speak up if we can say things we have prepared in advance. Practise voicing your values in front of respected peers, using the style of expression that you are most skilled at using. Invite coaching and feedback.
  7. Reasons and rationalisations. Anticipate the reasons and rationalisations for questionable conduct so that you can prepare credible and logical responses in advance.

Find out more

Earn CPD by tuning into the sessions ‘Navigating ethics in the workplace’ and ‘Ethical dilemmas in an era of sustainability reporting’ at ACCA’s virtual conference Accounting for the Future, on 21 and 23 November respectively, or watch on-demand at any time after that

See also ACCA’s celebration of World Ethics Day 2023