Values, trust and walking the talk: Interview with Public Trust’s Andrew Bhimy

Welcome to the first in Report It Now’s new series of client studies, where we examine how some of New Zealand’s most successful organisations manage their ethics and compliance obligations and support ethical behaviour in the workplace. 

In this instalment, we take a look at independent Crown entity the Public Trust, New Zealand’s largest provider of wills and estate administration services.

We asked Andrew Bhimy, General Manager of People and Strategy, about the Trust’s mission, what core values inform the organisation’s approach, and how Public Trust works to create a culture where people feel confident to speak up about things that concern them.

Report It Now: As a leader at the Public Trust, what does ethics mean to you? How does ethics manifest itself within the wider organisation?

Andrew Bhimy: To me, ethics means understanding what is morally right and then using this moral compass to guide actions and decision-making. Public Trust is in the business of providing fiduciary services; this means that our people are making decisions on behalf of other people that have a material impact on their lives. Being ethical in this decision-making is therefore crucial, as while we need to empathise with our customers. We also need to make decisions that are morally right or legally required, rather than what is easy or pleasing for the client.

These sorts of decisions are being made at all levels in our organisation. My role as a senior leader is to role model an ethical approach by openly discussing ethics and being guided by my moral compass in the way I treat people and make decisions.

What are the core values of the organisation? Does the Public Trust have an ethical mission statement?

Public Trust has four values that have a strong ethical underpinning.

‘We make the tricky seem simple’, is about how we guide our customers through complex and technical legal matters, empowering them to make good decisions.

‘People are at the heart of everything we do’, reflects the empathy we have for our customers and how everything we do is centred on good outcomes for people.

‘We are better when we work together’, supports the collaborative approach we take to working with our colleagues to access the right expertise at the right time, resulting in better quality outcomes for our customers.

‘We have the courage to make a difference’, empowers our people to make the right decision for our customers rather than being bound by business rules that may not make sense in a particular situation.

What are the ethical challenges faced in an entity like Public Trust? 

Our primary focus is on culture – helping people feel safe and confident to speak up about business practices or behaviours that concern them. Sometimes our people are concerned that a business process, rule or practice may not be ethically appropriate or is being applied in a way that is creating unethical outcomes. Being able to openly discuss this with our people usually results in an opportunity to better educate employees or in improvements to processes to ensure we generate better outcomes.

Conduct is also extremely important in an organisation like Public Trust. Our people are often presented with challenging scenarios where there are competing interests and complicated family dynamics. In these situations, they rely on their judgement to make decisions about a client or file that will inevitably be unsatisfactory to some of the parties involved. Because of this, it is critical we always make our decisions with integrity, in accordance with legal requirements, and with high ethical standards. Training our people to understand their fiduciary duty and to best balance client needs or wants and legal responsibilities is crucial as our people need to feel confident that they can do this rigorously and consistently.

Fraud or misconduct in managing a file is another risk – our people have a lot of access to sensitive information and client funds, so making sure we have robust controls that are regularly tested is a key part of our risk management framework. It is critical that customers and the community feel safe dealing with Public Trust, therefore our risk management framework includes robust controls to mitigate this risk and we encourage the raising of any issues or concerns through various channels (including anonymously if required) and we investigate and take any concerns very seriously. 

What do you expect from your colleagues and team members with regards to their business morals and ethics? How is this ethical commitment expressed across the business?

We expect the highest standard of morals and ethics from all employees, and test for this as part of our recruitment process. All new employees are required to complete a Code of Conduct training module that includes case studies and quizzes on dealing with different ethical dilemmas as part of working at Public Trust. This training needs to be repeated every 12 months by all employees. 

We’ve also worked closely with our leaders and their teams on topics like empowerment – what does making a good, empowered decision look like and how do we learn from the decisions we make. This has been led by our CE and executive team with our line managers and has included robust debate about what helps and hinders us from making good decisions.

What commitment to ethical reporting does your business undertake? How seriously do you take it?

Extremely seriously. Public Trust has invested heavily in risk and compliance over the past three years to ensure that we are meeting legal, compliance and regulatory obligations and managing risk to improve customer service and operational certainty for Public Trust. 

In order to track this, we need to be able to measure and report on lead indicators like training completed or employee turnover that may flag potential issues, as well as lag indicators such as regulatory or compliance breaches. This reporting is shared widely across the organisation, ensuring transparency and dialogue about good practice.

We regularly communicate with our people about risk and conduct issues, including the role and membership of our Safe to Speak Committee and reinforcing the availability of the Report It Now platform for our people to use

What is the value of external help when it comes to maintaining an ethical organisation? 

We think that external help is important as it provides an independent, outside-in lens that helps keep us honest. For all of the best intentions, there is always the risk that we could convince ourselves that what we are doing internally is better than it actually is. We decided to bring on the Report It Now platform as we saw the benefits of offering our employees an anonymous reporting platform that was outside of standard reporting lines, to give them the opportunity to raise sensitive issues that might not otherwise come to the surface. We’ve found that this has been very effective as sometimes people are concerned about a matter but don’t know how to raise it, or afraid to do so without support. Because Report It Now also provides a liaison service, where their staff will liaise with our people when they raise an issue in confidence, this has helped our people to build their confidence in raising the issue and help them frame it or direct it in the right way.

We’ve used the platform for about 18 months now, and I’m confident that through it we’ve surfaced several important matters that might not otherwise have come to our attention. Having an approach like this requires a leap of faith and some learning, but once in place I believe it provides a powerful new avenue for helping leadership to understand where there may be issues beneath the surface.

In addition to an anonymous tool like Report It Now, success requires investment in the organisation culture and ongoing communication to encourage people to feel safe to use the tool.

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