Ethical performance is a competitive advantage

In these turbulent times, ethical behaviour needs to be viewed by businesses as a competitive advantage says Prof Kevin Sludds

If there’s one thing Prof Kevin Sludds has is perspective. A celebrated driving force for ethics in business in Ireland and globally, what isn’t generally known is his back story includes living rough on the streets of Dublin when he was a teen.

“Yes, you could say I dragged myself up by the bootstraps,” Dr Kevin Sludds chuckles. But behind the wry humour is a tale of youth deprivation, personal transformation, steely determination and moral character. 

“There are lots of businesses that are doing good things in relation to ethics but they have no idea how to promote that. They need to see ethical behaviour as a competitive advantage”

Dr Sludds is a professional ethicist with 25 years’ experience of teaching, consulting and training. He has taught philosophy and ethics at Trinity College Dublin, Institute of Technology Sligo and is an Associate of the Irish Management Institute. Sludds has devised various courses for third level institutions, international training companies and delivered highly regarded programmes the cornerstone of which is making ethics meaningful to management and staff at all levels in a way which is both dynamic and concrete.

In 2011 Sludds established the firm Ethics Consultancy & Training International, he is recognised in Ireland and abroad for his innovative work on ethics and emotion analysis and has published widely including books, book chapters, translations, peer-reviewed and popular articles and has won both national and international awards. He has worked in Europe, Africa and India and has engaged with a range of clients in both the public and private sectors as well as contributing to the development of Government strategies in the areas of Ethics & Irish Aid, Mental Health and Custodial Care.

Only recently he was the author of a major report for the County Wexford Chamber of Commerce called “Reviving Wexford” which set out what had to be done in the county to lead a path to economic recovery.

Street poetry

Despite a glittering academic and business career, Sludds’ start in life wasn’t easy. “I had a difficult relationship at home, particularly with my father which basically resulted in him kicking me out of the house.”

In his late teens Sludds found himself living on the streets of 1980s Dublin. “I literally had nowhere to go. I used to live along the Royal Canal and I had a few favourite haunts around the Phoenix Park that were safe.”

To describe the experience as an existential crisis would be an understatement. “There’s something to be learned from all our experiences in life,” Sludds says stoically. “There are quite a few elements of being homeless that are difficult, and one of them is a very simple physical thing of being hungry and the other is being cold. I still to this day remember how incredibly cold I could feel. But the third thing was a mental thing of being pushed so far to the limit that I asked myself ‘what is the point of my life?’”

If Sludds was anything, he was resilient and determined. He steered clear of the heroin epidemic that raged in Dublin at that time and found a bedsit in Drumcondra and a job at the Nokia factory in Finglas.

What’s fascinating about Sludds is that he refuses to see himself as a victim. As he got his life on track, he discovered he had undiagnosed dyslexia. “Growing up I was regularly beaten for being stupid and useless, which the Christian Brothers tried to happily bash out of me.”

Despite these provocations, Sludds sought solace in reading and writing poetry and always knew his life did have meaning. For many years he worked in various jobs from security to building but by the age of 23 he was accepted to go to University College Galway as a mature student where he studied sociology, politics, philosophy, English and psychology, culminating in a degree in English and philosophy.”

Initially Sludds was selected to study for a PhD. But a falling out with a senior don at a leading university because he naively thought it was helpful to critique a book derailed his potential career at the university. “I had no appreciation at the time of the degrees of ego that existed in universities.”

Nevertheless, Sludds persevered, pursued a Master’s from Open University and eventually gained a PhD from DCU.

“You could say what happened was unfair, but the good the experience did was it made me interested in ethics in both business and life.”

Ethics matters to the philosophy of sound business

Dr Sludds points out that ethics is one of the four principal branches of philosophy. The term ethics is derived from the Greek word ‘ethikos’ which itself is derived from the word ‘ethos’, meaning custom or character.

And when it comes to understanding why ethics matters to business, it is not just about being good or doing the right thing, it goes to the very character of what your organisation is supposed to be all about.

“What I emphasise ethics is all about is what you do and how you do it. It is a mode of behaviour. And if you can prove that about your organisation then the culture of your organisation is a positive one for doing the right thing. And then you’re ahead of the party and you have a fantastic opportunity to promote yourself. A major competitive advantage. It amazes me, how many people don’t seem to realise that.

“People need to realise that ethics offers businesses – from a bottom-line perspective – an enormous potential opportunity to differentiate themselves. And I think it’s because all too often across the business arena people have associated the notion of ethics with concepts around regulation rules, rights and laws. And I think that’s a major mistake.

“The truth is you can have as many laws as you like, but when it comes to doing something unethical people will always find a way to do it. Where there are rules, people will always find a way to bend them.

“Instead, make sure you instill a culture or a climate where doing the right thing is seen as a positive rather than a short-term advantage.”

A bugbear of Dr Sludd’s is that despite all the regulation, compliance and the creation of departments and functions in organisations like CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) few people in these roles have a formal background in ethics.

“There is no training in ethics per se, just job titles. In business, you would never give the receptionist the job of carrying out a financial audit, yet there are so many ethics committees and boards in organisations and no one has a background in ethics or sees reason to promote their ethical performance as a competitive advantage.”

From sports to banking to media and law and more, Sludds believes ethics permeates every industry.

“CSR shouldn’t be just about giving money to good causes. You need to also define your organisation’s ethical credentials. Show how you do the right thing. Live your credentials.”

Simply put, businesses need to define their moral character, how they do the right thing and how it is built in to what they do.

“There are lots of businesses that are doing good things in relation to ethics but they have no idea how to promote that.

“They need to see ethical behaviour as a competitive advantage,” Dr Sludds recommended.

Written by John Kennedy (

Published: 11 September, 2020