There are plenty of surveys, news articles and reports about unethical practices in the workplace. Given that bad news often attracts more attention than good, this can create the impression that businesses generally place the pursuit of profit as their prime objective, sometimes deviating from an expressed value to do so.
There is some truth in this. A recent example was related to me by a senior employee of a medium-sized tech firm.
When this company was sold to a larger organisation from another country, with a significant monetary benefit to the owners, the new chief executive set about paring back as many support staff and expenses as possible, leaving the main assets in the form of skilled employees in manufacturing plants across the UK and a considerable number of technical patents for the parent company to exploit.
Profit was seen by the existing staff to be the sole motivating force and, as a result, the best people were leaving. This incident can be interpreted as a mixture of increasing efficiency by cost-cutting in order to impress the new parent company and instructions from the new owners to exploit the situation to the maximum before moving on.
It is at this point we must ask: did ethical values play any part in this strategy?
View from the floor
The incident might not be typical of most successful start-ups but stories like this account for the fact that only 48% of the UK public thinks business is done ethically.
This is set out in the Institute of Business Ethics (IBE) 2016 ‘Survey of attitudes of the British public to business ethics’. Corporate tax avoidance, levels of executive pay and the exploitation of the labour force are the most cited reasons for distrust. New issues raised in this survey include work/home life balance for employees and the protection of customer and other data.
Similar data on the public’s view from continental European countries of business behaviour is not yet available. The fact that 70% of employees in four continental European countries said that honesty was practised ‘always/frequently’ indicates that it is not likely to be very different from the UK, where the equivalent figure is 81%.
However, it should be noted that 45% of Spanish employees say they are aware of misconduct in the workplace and this proportion is rising.
So what do employees generally think about the way business is conducted in their organisation? On the whole they are less sceptical of their own organisation’s behaviour than the general public. Fewer than one in 10 said they felt pressured to compromise their organisation’s ethical standards, while more than half (55%) said they felt able to speak up if they were concerned about something connected with their work.
However, the proportion of employees who said they were aware of misconduct at work has remained at 20% in the past decade. In 2015, the average figure in France, Spain, Germany and Italy was 33%. Staff being treated badly was the most oft cited.