One in six European employees say that they have felt some form of pressure to compromise their organisations’ ethical standards in the past three years, according to a 5 July report from the Institute of Business Ethics (IBE).  Indeed, IBE’s 2018 Ethics at Work survey notes that the number of employees experiencing such pressure has risen in every country for which historical data is available.
IBE director Philippa Foster Back said: “This is a worrying development. Employees are under more stress to deliver than ever before, and this is increasing the pressure to then cut ethical corners. These figures should be seen as a warning sign to organisations that they need to be more supportive of their employees when it comes to making ethical decisions.”
But despite Foster Back’s call for intensified ethical governance, the report indicates that leadership figures are falling easy prey to the very ills they should be fighting against. IBE’s research shows that managers’ attitudes to petty fiddling have become more tolerant over time – 30% of them actually think that it is inevitable in modern organisations. One in eight managers even take the view that it is acceptable to artificially boost profits in a company’s books, as long as no money is stolen.
However, underneath all this, there is the encouraging finding that employees are more likely to speak up about misconduct. More than half (54%) of workers who were aware of misconduct in their organisations said something about it: an improvement on IBE’s previous Ethics at Work survey of 2015.
UK staff were most likely to have reported misconduct (67%) while respondents in Portugal were least likely (49%).
Foster Back added: “Global movements like #metoo and #timesup are having ramifications throughout the workplace – not just in terms of people speaking up about harassment, but in feeling empowered to raise concerns about other issues. We hope that this is the beginning of speaking up being seen as business as usual.”
With that in mind, then, how can leaders help their employees to develop high levels of ethical awareness and conduct?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “We’ve done quite a lot of research in this field over the years, and have more in the pipeline which is going to come out soon. What we find is that individuals typically perceive their own behaviours to be more ethically driven than those of other people, which certainly provides an interesting insight into how people situate themselves within the broader ethical landscape.”
Cooper notes: “another theme that has come up over and over again is a call for an end to The Unspoken: a procedure or pattern of behaviour that is taken as read to occur, and is consequently waved through regardless of its ethical dimensions. That covers unspoken agreements, or unspoken processes. Indeed, that was a key concern at the heart of the Parliamentary expenses scandal. The pattern of claiming expenses in the ways to which MPs had become accustomed for topping up their salaries became part of the furniture. It took intense media scrutiny to flag up just how egregious that pattern was.”
She explains: “if you have a situation in which people are drawing their own ethical lines because of unspoken factors, then it follows that perceptions of what is, or is not, ethical will vary hugely from individual to individual. And that’s what we saw in the House of Commons during the expenses scandal. And if – as the IBE survey suggests – managers are allowing, or becoming comfortable with, minor infringements, then it will make major infringements so much more acceptable. And, therefore, likely.”
Cooper adds: “What we can safely conclude is that this all comes down to rewarding the behaviours you want to see. You can’t reward people for ‘not being unethical’ – that’s a tricky, vague requirement. But you can have defined standards by which staff are expected to abide – and when you see deviations from those standards, you call them out and submit them to discussion. Where you run into grey areas – particularly those that stem from culture clashes – then make every effort to reconcile the difference between those cultural sentiments and the standards that you expect. That’s certainly the approach that management philosopher Charles Hampden-Turner advocates.
“You must show your employees what high standards of ethical awareness and conduct look like. And it must be an ongoing conversation.”
For further thoughts on ethics in organisations, check out these learning resources from the Institute
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