Benchmarking Ethics at Work

Benchmarking Ethics at Work

There have been a number of surveys about how business sees its ethics and about the processes and practices that organizations rely on to help ensure high ethical standards in the way they do their business.

However, very little is known, beyond anecdotes of widely reported individual malpractice, about the attitudes and practices of ordinary employees. The exceptions are surveys conducted by organizations among their own staff. It was to help fill this gap that the Institute of Business Ethics undertook, with MORI and Management Today magazine, the first structured survey of full time U.K. employees. The resulting report, Ethics at Work details the results from a sample of 759 interviewees.

The comprehensive nature of data from the IBE survey will enable employers to compare the ethical standards of those in their organization with national norms. The findings will also serve as a benchmark for tracking changes over time.

Honesty is Widespread

Overall, the "Ethics at Work" survey indicates that three quarters of U.K. full time employees think that the organization for which they work is honest and 80% say they feel positive about ethical practices and standards at their place of work. Indeed, less than one in five said they felt pressure to compromise their employer's standards.

While a quarter say that they know of some dishonest practices, only half of those who say they have observed malpractice have been prepared to report it. This suggests that there is still someway to go in creating a culture of openness in U.K. organizations to help ensure that ethical issues can be raised without fear of retaliation. The probability of alienation from colleagues was the main reason given for this.

There were some results that give cause for concern. More than half the workforce tolerates a little fiddling, for example, and a majority of respondents think that most people lie to their bosses on occasion.

As confirmed by the survey, the most effective tool for implementing ethical policies remains a code. At least nine out of ten of the U.K.'s larger companies now have one. While their use varies considerably, 60% require conformity to it as part of their contracts of employment compared with 53% in 2000.

Having a code of ethics to guide employees' decisions is a necessary but not sufficient tool to make an ethics policy successful. Unless the standards are taken seriously and, for example, a way provided for employees at all levels to raise issues that concern them in a confidential or anonymous way, the code may be little more than a paper exercise. The survey shows that only half of all employers provide such a facility.

Ethical Training

A vital ingredient in any ethics policy is effective training: it raises awareness and provides practical guidelines. Half of all respondents to the survey say their organization provides this and three quarters say they find it useful.

The ethical perceptions and practices of some subgroups in the survey vary. Among the more significant are that:
  • Public sector workers are more aware and have more support for adhering to ethical standards than their colleagues in the private sector

  • Women are stricter in their ethical standards than men

  • The under 35s are likely to be less strict than older employees about ethical conduct
Although it is hoped that dishonest/fraudulent practices in the workplace will decline over time, they will never be totally eradicated: there will always be "chancers". As ethics policies and training become the norm, however, it will be increasingly accepted and acknowledged that the way organizations, whether in the public or private sector, "do business" does matter.

Staff at all levels will begin to realize that the way they behave -- their ethics -- is about the decisions they make and the actions they take, even when they are not being observed. The example set by management remains critical if standards are to be maintained. If senior management within organizations behaves badly and does not live up to or enforce the values, staff can hardly be expected to behave differently or better.

[Purchase full text of the report on the IBE Web site.]

Simon Webley is research director at the U.K.'s Institute of Business Ethics.

This column has been reprinted courtesy of Ethical Corporation. It was first published on July 26, 2005.