Deep insight from The Institute of Business Ethics (IBE) survey: Ethics at Work

The Institute of Business Ethics (IBE)’s  2018 survey of Ethics At Work, reveals both promising progress and risky concerns in the attitudes of employees to ethics in the workplace.

Launched a few days ago, the 2018 survey, with expanded reach, provides a very thorough and well-considered report, looking at ethics in the context of work and our current world.

The survey, first introduced in 2005 and conducted every three years, asks employees how they experience ethical dilemmas in their day-to-day working lives.

The IBE’s Guendalina Dondé  led the research team for this year’s survey, with feedback from over 6,000 employees across eight European countries as well as Australia, Canada, Singapore and New Zealand.

The full report is well worth digging into and you can download the PDF  here or read the summary here.

Sponsor companies – including Rolls Royce, Centrica, L’Oréal, Aviva and Morgan Stanley – have demonstrated transparency by opening up about their own experiences of developing a culture of ethics in the workplace.

At the launch evening the other day, a European panel of experts shared insights from their own research in the discussion to explore the IBE survey findings.

Ethics is at the core of belonging. The Ethos and Values of the organisation establish what you belong to and the standards expected of ‘how we do things’.

Having enjoyed over 20 years’ specialising in culture, ethics and values, several themes from the discussion resonated in particular:

People do the right thing because they want to, not just because they have to 

This has absolutely been our experience. It is not just compliance, but commitment, that upholds ethical principles.

One of the more positive findings from the survey suggests the efforts of companies, to encourage commitment, is working:

  • 86% of employees in organisations with a comprehensive ethics programme say their organisations acts responsibly in all its business dealings, in comparison with 57% in organisations without an ethics programme 

Ethics is a shared responsibility: a culture of active participation and speaking-up is essential 

  • Nearly one in three employees have been aware of misconduct at work.
  • Employees are more likely to speak up about misconduct, with 54% saying they spoke up, an improvement on 2015.

Leadership also means followership

This was a significant theme in the expert panel’s discussion. While leaders are accountable for culture and ethics, and responsible for setting the tone, ‘Leadership’ is not just a badge of hierarchy: it’s also about ‘Followership’.

The data shows a generational difference in pressure to compromise:

  • Younger employees aged 18-34 (20%) are more likely than their older colleagues aged 55+ (15%) and mid-career employee’s (14%) to have felt pressured to compromise their ethical standards

Tolerance of poor behaviour is cankerous to ethical culture – and it increases under pressure 

“Ethical blindness and moral disengagement will impair the effectiveness of an organisation’s ethics programme and thus increase ethical risks”

Yet tolerance for petty fiddling, especially in the UK, seems to have gone up since 2015

Statistics for concern include:

  • In the U.K. 38% of respondents agree ‘Petty fiddling is inevitable in a modern organisation’ (32% in 2015)

And this increases when combined with pressure to perform

  • On the question ‘As long as I come in on time and within budget I am not long to worry about a bit of petty fiddling’ UK scored highest, 27% agree (up from 2015)
  • In France 20% agreed ‘It is acceptable to artificially increase profits in the books as long as no money is stolen’ (12% in 2015)

Perhaps high profile scandals in this are, such as Carillion, have increased awareness in the UK?

However on this question the UK responses still scored 15% (more than double from 7% in 2015)

Appreciation of good behaviour, not just punishment of contraventions, makes a big difference

There was passionate discussion on this, with several companies stressing the need to value good practice of upholding ethics. And yet …

  • Only 23% of respondents say their organisation provides incentives to employees to encourage them to live up to ethical standards

The survey was set up to ‘take the ethical temperature’ against three key themes:

  1. Assessing the ethical culture
  2. Identifying ethical risks
  3. Supporting ethics standards

A few points of encouraging feedback: 

(Taken from the IBE’s summary)

86% of employees with an ethics programme say that honesty is practiced at work.

  • Whilst only 74% of employees in organisations without an ethics programme say the same.
  • Employees who work in what the IBE identifies as ‘a supportive environment for ethics’ tend to have a higher opinion of honesty in their organisation; are less likely to have seen misconduct at work; and are more likely to have spoken up about misconduct if they have been aware of it.

And some areas of concern

Pressure to compromise ethical standards has risen, with 16% of respondents in Europe saying they have felt some form of pressure

  • 24% of UK employees have been aware of misconduct at work
  • 12% of UK employees have felt pressured to compromise ethical standards

‘Time pressure’ is the most common reason for employees to act unethically (34%) followed by ‘My boss’s orders’ (29%)

  • Overall, employees felt more time pressure and were asked to take shortcuts more often than three years ago 
  • ‘I was being asked to take shortcuts’ features worryingly highly in feedback from Ireland (27%) and the UK (26%)

The full report is packed with data, insight, fascinating country breakdowns of key issues, and useful practical experience from sponsor companies.

It concludes with interesting exploration of four questions for organisations to consider:

  • Are employees able to identify and address ethical dilemmas?
  • Do organisations understand the different needs of a multigenerational workforce?
  • Are SMEs able to tackle the specific ethical risks that they face?
  • How are the schemes to incentives ethical behaviour designed? Are they achieving their intended purpose?

The IBE Ethics at Work Survey provides deep data and solid guidance. If you are remotely concerned about ethics, values and reputation, do download and read it.

A strong sense of belonging around shared ethos is a vital part of business success. The ethical behaviour of leaders and colleagues will influence the standards of the whole group.
Conformity is a powerful force. Belonging is how an ethical culture reinforces conformity to good standards, and not bad. As the IBE survey shows, cultivating ethics is essential for risk management and commercial success.

We share some of our experience about how to tackle these kinds of challenges in the next article and previous pieces on Belonging Works.

Isabel Collins is a specialist in culture, ethics and values. She founded Belonging Space to help companies build an ethical culture with a strong sense of belonging based on shared ethos.