Business Ethics in the News 2020

Publication type: Business ethics briefing
23 December 2020

Tags: Anti-Bribery & Corruption (ABC), Speak Up, Gender pay gap, Remuneration, Tax, Technology, Human rights, Harassment & bullying, Diversity, Treatment of Employees, Data privacy

This briefing provides an overview of the ethical concerns and lapses that were recorded by the IBE in its monitoring of media coverage in 2020.

Speed read

  • The Technology sector sits at the top of the list for most ethical lapses recorded, with a total of 56 for 2020. This marks the first time Banking and Finance has failed to top the list.
  • The same 3 categories (Behaviour and Culture, Treatment of Employees and Diversity and Discrimination) make up the top 3 this year as in 2019.
  • The number of lapses recorded in the 'Treatment of Customers' category has doubled compared to 2019.
  • The Health and Pharmaceuticals sector featured heavily, with more than four times as many lapses recorded as in 2019.
  • Just like in 2019, Sustainability was the only category in which more positive than negative stories were recorded.

While this briefing does not give detailed information about the severity of ethical lapses in the business community, it does provide an indication about the sectors which were most cited, and the nature and frequency of the ethical issues concerned. Figures 1 and 2 summarise the main findings. The vast majority of the news stories recorded focus on negative corporate behaviour, and these stories form the basis of this briefing. However, as some good news stories about businesses’ handling of ethical issues do occur, a short section at the end of the briefing offers more information about the positive stories we recorded. 64 positive stories were recorded this year.

Lapses by Sector 

In 2020, the highest number of ethical lapses was recorded in the technology sector (56 stories), followed by the banking and finance sector (53 stories), and the general retailers and consumer goods sector (43 stories). Collectively, these three sectors account for 43.3% of the total number of lapses recorded.

Issues of Concern

Irrespective of sector, the biggest issues of concern in 2020 were those relating to behaviour and culture (55 stories), treatment of employees (50 stories) and diversity and discrimination (35 stories). These three categories also made up the top 3 last year, but 2nd and 3rd place have switched. Collectively, well over a third (39.9%) of the total number of lapses recorded were related to these issues. See Figure 2 for more data on the number of lapses categorised by issue area.

IBE Briefing: Business Ethics in the News 2020


William O’Connor
William O’Connor

Researcher, IBE,

As a Researcher at the IBE, I contribute to a wide range of research projects and publications, carry out advisory work for supporter and non-supporter organisations, and assist in the delivery of events and training. 

I joined the IBE in October 2019 as an intern after concluding my studies for an MA in Corruption and Governance at Sussex University. After 3 weeks as an intern, I became a permanent member of staff at the Institute. 

Integrity has no need of rules – Albert Camus

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