As an ethicist I was privileged to work with the top management of large organisations in institutionalized health care (mainly hospitals) in The Netherlands. Modern hospitals are complex organisations delivering the latest science and technology via highly trained experts and personnel, delivering services to people in need of treatment and care. The delivery of these services are compounded by accelerating technological developments, tight budgets and increasing public demands. Many of the choices made in this setting are the result of a balancing act, often involving ethical consultation and morally grounded decision making. With this picture in mind I would like to benchmark the present behaviour of the big property insurance companies active in the Canterbury/Christchurch region.
Do insurance companies have something in common with hospitals? Yes, like hospitals they have become indispensable. Insurance companies have become part of the social fabric and provide essential services in the protection of our assets. Most homeowners in New Zealand have their homes insured with a view to being protected in the event of an adverse circumstance. If you need a mortgage, banks will not give it to you unless your home is insured. Under normal conditions insurance companies take our premiums in return for the coverage of our assets. An occasional adverse event might happen but not on the scale we have seen in Canterbury after the earthquakes of 2010 – 2012. These events have necessarily meant that there has been a change of roles for the insurance industry: from “loving our stuff” and simply cashing in on the premiums faithfully paid, to becoming the vital partners in the recovery of our lives, assets and a city. The current set of circumstances requires a very different organizational response from their previous modus operandi. One can see why the old advertisements (such as the one mentioned above) no longer work, or miss the point in the eyes of the customer. Private insurers now carry a public responsibility. The recovery is an all together different ball game. Where they once were able to get away with taking money from customers in the form of premiums, they now find themselves in the position of having to give it back. This requires a massive internal shift in both their internal thought processes and ultimately in their modus operandi. I note that in the current environment they have simply failed to shift their focus and are still working from a ‘business as usual’ model. And this is why in the public eye they are failing to be perceived as effective in Christchurch. Below I will use some of the insights I gained from working with hospitals as an analogy.
1. Management is not only responsible for keeping the books in order, but is also responsible for the moral fabric of the organisation which sets the standards on the basis upon which the organisation functions internally and operates in the outside world.
2. The way the workers are equipped and educated to do their work in accordance with the mission of the organisation and how this translates in their dealings with customers on a daily basis is a top priority for management.
3. There is a fine, yet crucial balance between how organisations present themselves to the outside world and how the outside world perceives the services of those organisations. The management is the guardian of that equilibrium.
4. Organisations should not advertise services or make promises which they cannot keep or, which is worse, prove to be manipulative or untrue.
5. Products must not be presented to their customers in a multi-interpretable way.
6. Customer centred organisations should deliver their services within reasonable time frames. (Consider the struggle hospitals have with their waiting lists).
7. When circumstances make it necessary to outsource some of their services, measures should be in place that these contracted organisations work in accordance with the corporate guidelines and procedures that guarantee continuing customer satisfaction.
8. Organisations should accept that sometimes their customers are more knowledgeable about certain aspects of an issue than they are.
9. When organisations get it wrong they might as well be open about it. It raises their profile as a trustworthy organisation to confront their own faults and misjudgements.
10. Organisations should provide their personnel with training and education to help them stay abreast of developments in the area of their expertise and to help them adjust to changing circumstances.
11. In case of specific restraints or limited resources it is important for the organisation to see these as challenges and to put in an extra effort that helps to create a win-win situation for both the organisation and their customer(s).
12. Face to face communication can be time consuming but, in the end, offers best results.
13. Transparency is an operational asset for large organisations. It is appreciated by the outside world and makes the organisation more respectable in the eyes of the public and its customers in particular.
14. Mature and well established organisations not only publish their balance sheets, but also report on how they enhance the quality of their customer services.
15. In public opinion a mission statement is a worthless piece of paper if the organisation cannot live up to its content.
When, organisations such as the insurance corporates cross the threshold of purely working for their own benefit and become by the nature of their services indispensable to public wellbeing, their responsibilities towards society necessarily change. When an industry does not perceive the required shift in responsibility as paramount, the question becomes whether they are the right kind of organisation to assist in the recovery of communities, including the restoration of the city and the reestablishment of businesses?
This has now become a pressing issue in Canterbury. If the insurers are not equipped to do that honourable, yet complex task, then what other kind of construction can we think of to aid us in times of catastrophic events? If, however, the insurance industry thinks that they are adequately equipped to render the public service described above, it is time for them to be seen to be adding some ethical behaviour to their tool kit and provide ‘best practise’ for their customers in Canterbury. Otherwise customers are left scratching their heads and wondering why they bother with private insurance at all.
Herman Meijburg (Ethicist), firstname.lastname@example.org